Paul Robeson sang the soundtrack of my childhood. I wore out two copies of his 78-rpm album, “Ballad for Americans,” yet continued to play it, scratches and all. When I was about 8 years old I met him after a concert and watched my hand disappear into the largest hand I had ever seen. He was bigger than life in many ways. It is only fair for me to admit that I come at his story with reverential feelings.
Today Robeson is a virtual unknown. Not so in his heyday. He was the most famous black man in America, if not the world — “The Tallest Tree in the Forest.” Born in 1898, he was the son of a former slave. Only the third black man to graduate from Rutgers University, he was not only valedictorian and Phi Beta Kappa, but he had been an All American football player for his last two years there. He then put himself through Columbia Law School, playing on two different NFL teams.
When a secretary at his prestigious law firm refused to take dictation from a Negro, he quit the firm in disgust, gave up the law, and followed the lure of the Harlem Renaissance. His commanding bass propelled him onto the Broadway stage and Hollywood. He became the toast of Europe, where anti-black sentiment was not so overt. His wife, Dr. Essie Cardozo Goode, accomplished in her own right, left her position as a biochemist who ran a lab at the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital to manage Robeson’s career and, from what Beaty portrays, to attempt to manage him too.
After being the first black man to star in “Othello” at Stratford-on-Avon, Broadway, and in London, and with the likes of Jerome Kern and Eugene O’Neil courting Robeson to star in their productions, how then did he slip into obscurity? The answer is: partially at the hands of “The Man.” But partially he was a victim of his own justifiable, but not always judicious, anger.
The Robesons had traveled to the Soviet Union during the 1930s on the invitation of Sergei Eisenstein; once there, he fell under the spell of what he perceived as the first place where races were all equal and he could be respected for himself. On his way to Russia, Robeson was outraged by what he saw happening to the Jews in Berlin. Later he was furious about the treatment African American soldiers received returning to the U.S. after fighting valiantly in WWII. While he was in England he joined the Welsh miners protesting their inhumane treatment. Where there was an outrage he was publicly outraged and not afraid to be outrageous in his expression. He had no truck with oppression, racial or economic. He had no time for patience, diplomacy, or compromise.
He met with Harry Truman in the Oval Office and was thrown out for his demands. In reaction to his outspoken views and actions, the U.S. government took away his passport, which sentenced him to great financial hardship as his fame was even greater in Europe than the U.S.; ultimately he was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he refused to answer whether or not he was a Communist, leading to his being blacklisted and further thwarting his career. When asked about anti-Semitism in Russia, he adamantly refused to acknowledge what he knew to be true, that Jews were being persecuted for their beliefs, thereby alienating his Jewish supporters. He alienated black activist groups by his abrasive, outspoken stands, which the mainstream movement felt impeded the possible, as imperfect as it might have been. In 1976 he died alone, after years of depression and mental breakdown. There was no one to carry his banner.
Writer performer Daniel Beaty has attempted to cram the entirety of Robeson’s complicated history into a one-man play of approximately two hours filled with dialogue between Robeson and more than 40 characters. The shoes of this multi-gifted black man, revered for much of his career, reviled for the remainder, are too big for almost any performer to fill. Beaty is an engaging actor, but, alas, he is human. His baritone is pleasant to listen to, but no match for Robeson’s once-heard-never-forgotten bass. The multiple characters, by necessity, become caricatures. For example, a falsetto stands in for both Robeson as a boy and Essie his wife. There is no room for development in this whirlwind biography.
To Beaty’s credit, as much as he obviously wants to commemorate Robeson, he has not portrayed Robeson as a saint. References to his philandering and total disregard for diplomacy are straightforward. Do I think Beaty has bitten off more than he or an audience can chew? Definitely. Dramatic development has been sacrificed in the interest of relating history. The story he has to tell, however, is such an important piece of American history I wonder if it is even fair to criticize it in theatrical terms. The synopsis of Robeson’s life in the program makes the quantity of information easier to digest, but should one need a program to understand a play? I think not.
Beaty’s use of the words of Columbia film professor Jamal Joseph — “If you’re talking about race and class, there’s no place for you in American history” — illuminate Robeson’s current obscurity. They also resonate with the current issue of economic disparity in America. The issues are eternal. As important as the message is, Beaty’s treatment can leave you missing the forest for the tangle of trees. Yet “The Tallest Tree” is still worth seeing for those of us who remember, and those who never knew, the larger-than-life Paul Robeson.