by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager and Maria Edmundson, Artistic Development Fellow
Award-winning writer, actor, singer and composer Daniel Beaty returns to our stage this January. Previously at Arena Stage, Daniel performed his solo-play EMERGENCY (formerly Emergence-SEE!) and premiered his ensemble piece, Resurrection. Daniel has performed and been produced across the country, including a very successful Off-Broadway run. A member of New Dramatists and an adjunct professor at Columbia University, Daniel has authored two new books — Knock Knock, a children’s book, and Transforming Pain to Power. I recently spoke with Daniel about his production, The Tallest Tree in the Forest, based on the life of Paul Robeson and directed by Moisés Kaufman. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
What is The Tallest Tree in the Forest about?
The play is about the journey of the artist-activist. First, Paul Robeson’s path to discover his artist self, then his dance between the artist-activist self, and finally his full movement into his activist personality, with his art only being in service of his activist agendas. That’s the public side of Robeson. The personal side is made up of these two core influences early in his life — his father, who was a scholar, an escaped slave who taught himself to read and graduated from Lincoln University, and his brother who was about force and eventually died in the streets. This duality exists inside Robeson: “Will I use my intellect? Will I use my passion and my force?”
What attracted you to Paul Robeson?
I first learned about him when I was a student of classical voice in college. I have a love for the spirituals and I remember coming across a CD of his singing spirituals, world music and folk songs. I was astonished by how beautiful his voice was and then I discovered how many other things he did beyond singing.
He was an all-star athlete; Valedictorian from Rutgers University; Columbia University lawyer; star of stage and screen; concert-singer performing in front of 20,000-30,000 people at a time; an activist for black people in America, but also for Welsh miners, the African Colonial Freedom movement and union workers all over the country. He was a master of many, many different forms.
In an interview you gave in American Theatre Magazine you said, “I can only create a historical story if I feel it has immediate resonance today; the activist part of me finds it necessary.” How does Paul Robeson’s story resonate today?
One of my places of passion is the state of black men and boys in this country and the urgent issues around that. Part of the challenge is that there are lies that have been told — from media, from history, even generational trauma about who we are and who we can be. A figure like Robeson, who is a superhero in terms of his level of achievement and commitment and passion, immediately debunks that lie. Whether you agree or disagree with his politics, he made connections between race and class that are crucial for us at this point in our society. We’re so polarized around so many different issues, but his core message is that all human beings, regardless of race or class, should be able to have opportunity and that we’re responsible to each other. That’s an urgent message for us right now in the world.
What do you think the role of an artist as an activist — do you think it’s possible to be both?
It’s absolutely possible to be both. For Robeson, the urgency of the issues of his time caused him to feel like he could not be both. A turning point that we discuss in the play is the wildfire of lynchings that was going through the United States and his meeting with President Truman in 1946. The reality of the type of opportunities that were available to him as a black artist of that time, and feeling like the issues were so urgent and the system was so hypocritical, made him decide that is was not enough for him to continue. He says, “No more singing pretty songs.”
There are extremely urgent causes now, but there are so many different tools available to us in contemporary society — with social media and the internet — for varied voices to be heard in the world, that being an artist, having the platform of creativity, the platform of some degree of celebrity can cause you to have more influence.
I use a quote of Robeson’s at the top of my new book, Transforming Pain to Power: Unlock Your Unlimited Potential— “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery.”
I speak for not-for-profits and foundations at fund raisers or conferences, but a lot of the time I’m the only artist there, and I’m there to speak or perform. One of the reasons we’re in the state that we’re in is that artists are not at the table the way we need to be in terms of the larger conversation of social transformation. Artists know something about mind—heart—soul integration. We know something about narrative, we know something about human connectedness. That is our unique gift to the world. When artists are not at the policy making table, we’re missing core aspects of our best self at that table.
(Daniel Beaty as Paul Robeson in Tectonic Theater Project’s The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Photo by Don Ipock.)