Interview by Laura Muir courtesy of Kansas City Repertory Theatre
In the mid-20th century, Paul Robeson was one of the best known African American artists in the world. Through his singing and acting talent, he became enormously popular and wealthy, and he was also highly regarded as an international champion for human rights.
Award-winning playwright and actor Daniel Beaty returns to Arena Stage as the legendary performer and social activist in the world premiere production of The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Moisés Kaufman, a Co-founder and Artistic Director of Tectonic Theater Project, returns having directed the hit production of 33 Variations and The Laramie Project Cycle. Biographies for both men can be found here.
Before arriving at Arena Stage, The Tallest Tree in the Forest performed at Kansas City Repertory and La Jolla Playhouse. While in rehearsal at Kansas City Rep, Beaty and Kaufman met with the Rep’s Communications Director Laura Muir to talk about The Tallest Tree in the Forest. The following is an excerpt of that conversation.
Daniel Beaty was a student of classical voice at Yale University when he first discovered African American singer, actor and social activist Paul Robeson. After hearing some of Robeson’s recordings and with a love of Negro spirituals, Beaty became curious about the man behind the amazing voice. “When I found out the breadth of all he had done I was both astonished and very upset that I had not learned about this giant figure,” Beaty says about the man who became one of his heroes.
“I feel like he epitomizes the artist activist. I wanted to find the right space and the right vehicle to bring him back to the social discourse, but to do it in a way that is as challenging and as complex and layered as he was. For me that means the complexity both of the man and the project in the time that he was living.”
How does one bring to the stage the life experiences of this giant of a man? It was challenging for Beaty, but not daunting. “So much of the power of drama is in the choices,” he explains. “And, much of the power of constructing a dramatic narrative that has force and urgency is trying to highlight those moments, sometimes very big and public and sometimes extremely personal, that were turning points in Robeson’s development.” Beaty continues, “The delicious aspect of the work is to continue to try out different moments to find which of them collectively tells the most dramatic story that is most compelling and also does justice to the character. And by justice, it’s not necessarily hero worship but a human being we can relate to who has contradictions and challenges and obstacles.” As the show’s only performer, Beaty portrays multiple characters with clarity and truth. Some of the characters are well-known figures from history and others are not, but Beaty is determined that each character have a clear perspective and emotional need.
Moisés Kaufman explains Beaty’s approach: “One of the things that amazes me about Daniel’s work on character is the specificity that he brings to that work. Each character has a history, each has an idiosyncrasy, and each has a philosophy by which she or he lives. Each character is not only an individual but is a member of the society in which he or she lives. Daniel does an incredible amount of homework for every character. What you see is literally the very, very, very small tip of a very, very, very large iceberg. Each character has a rich inner world, even if they only have two lines in the play.”
Kaufman is one of the nation’s most well-known author-directors, and his plays — most of which address historical subjects and social change — have been performed around the world. “Having worked with a lot of historical dramas and material, I am very attuned to historical characters and discovering what they want. Not to be over reductionistic, but the Oscar Wilde project [Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde] was about art, beauty and sexuality. In [The Laramie Project] you had a whole town going through this experience around the death of Matthew Shepard [who was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime in Wyoming in 1998]. And, there’s Beethoven in 33 Variations.
"I have had quite a bit of experience dealing with real life on stage, but I don’t think any of that prepared me for dealing with Robeson because his project was about race, and about class, and about colonialism in Africa, and about an individual’s ability to achieve their full potential. This is a man who was a citizen of the world before that term was popular. A man who got so much so right so early on. This is a man who lived in the world; who lived in the world as an artist; who lived in the world as an activist. The challenge of this play is that Robeson was a giant and was great at so many things — a great athlete, a great singer, an erudite scholar. What he wanted to achieve in his life was epic. What he was fighting for was epic.”
Kaufman and Beaty are perfectly attuned to portraying Robeson as both activist and artist. “Daniel and I think of ourselves as artists who create work that extends into social, political and human ideals of our time. Some people say our work is political. Yes. It is art that is political. Many times when you are in the middle of creating a work like that you do struggle. You care so much about politics and you are asked why don’t you quit being an artist and become an activist and fight for those things that you want? That conversation occurs all the time with artists like us who are in the trenches. What Robeson did that I find fascinating is that he made a choice. He stopped being an artist and he became an activist. Whether I agree with him or not I find my conversation with that decision incredibly rich for a dramatic event.”
Long an admirer of Kaufman’s work Beaty believed their collaboration – Beaty as creator and performer, Kaufman as director – could bring The Tallest Tree in the Forest to the stage. Figuring out how to pitch a play to one of theatre’s top directors was a challenge that was resolved with unexpected ease, as Beaty relates: “I have a residency with New Dramatist in New York City and I was telling Emily Morse, who is one of the creative directors there, that Moisés Kaufman would be my dream director for the project but I didn’t know how to reach him. So, Emily sent him the script. We did a 5-day workshop about 18 months ago and found a terrific connection. We’ve been on the journey ever since.”
“For me, what was exciting was when I got Daniel’s script I felt that this was something that not only I could get behind but that Tectonic could get behind,” said Kaufman. “I fell in love with the material and with the virtuosity of this performer.”
Before leaving the rehearsal hall for the evening, Beaty reflects on his relationship with Robeson, a man the young performer deeply admires and hopes to introduce to audiences who may not be familiar with the great accomplishments and bitter disappointments of his life. “I want audiences to have a profound understanding, if possible, about the time in which Robeson lived. The character of the person he was and the myriad of factors that contributed to the choices he made. The later years of his life are extremely painful to even contemplate but I’m not interested in writing tragedy so even in this play the difficulty that happens there is ultimately a discovery that has a glimmer of hope inside of it. But you know, whether or not people love Paul or hate him I think it would be hard for anyone to argue that the contributions he made should not be forgotten.”
Kaufman ended the conversation with an interesting piece of information: “The day that Robeson got the fatal stroke that killed him was the day that Daniel was born, December 28, 1975.” And so, the connection began.
(Photos courtesy Kansas City Rep: Paul Robeson, Jan 1, 1925, Edward Gooch, © Hulton Archive. Daniel Beaty, Nathan Yungerberg, www.njyphoto.com. Moisés Kaufman, Tectonic Theater Project.)