by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
Moisés Kaufman returns to Arena Stage where he previously directed his plays 33 Variations and The Laramie Project Cycle. Moisés is a Tony- and Emmy-nominated director and award-winning playwright. He most recently directed the Broadway revival of The Heiress with Jessica Chastain and wrote and directed 33 Variations on Broadway, starring Jane Fonda, which received five Tony nominations. Moisés also directed Rajiv Joseph's Pulitzer Prize finalist Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo with Robin Williams on Broadway in spring 2011. He is the Artistic Director of Tectonic Theater Project, creator of Moment Work (Tectonic's method for creating theater) and a Guggenheim Fellow in Playwriting. You can read his full bio here.
What attracted you to The Tallest Tree in the Forest?
I had seen Daniel perform and I was a big fan. He's a virtuosic performer, a brilliant mind and he's an opera singer—he's a triple threat.
I was also very interested in the script. I am fascinated with life and history as a source material. I find myself falling in love with how real-life narratives can be made into an artistic statement. Paul Robeson's story is one of those stories in America that has never been truly told. He was an all-American football star, a concert singer, spoke 15 languages, and was a brilliant scholar, a brilliant thinker and a great actor. There is a magnitude to this man. We don't see people like this. This man's project is so broad. It was about art and politics and liberation. It was about the revival of the Negro spiritual as a valid form of singing; about race and about class.
This is the story of an artist who became an activist and who stopped being an artist in order to become an activist. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was the most famous black man in the world. When he spoke, both white people and black people listened. When he became famous he realized that he had a responsibility to speak for civil rights and when he began to do that he stopped being just an artist and became an artist-activist. For someone with that amount of power and that amount of reach to have such daring ideas about race and about class—he needed to be silenced, and the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthy succeeded in doing that. This is a man who has been erased from American history. The challenge to tell his story on stage excited me.
How does Paul Robeson's story resonate today?
As artists we're always trying to have a dialogue with the society in which we work. Robeson felt that that wasn't enough. It wasn't enough for him to create beauty. He was also interested in how an artist could be a political speaker. This question of artist-activist is something that is still relevant. He spoke about class struggle and economic disparity, which is something that is very much in the public eye today. He foresaw a lot of the discourse on economic disparity that we're having now.
He made the connection that as long as each individual oppressed group only fights their oppression—if African Americans only fight for civil rights and gay people only fight for sexual orientation rights and women only fight for women's rights—we lack the power to effect profound economic change. But if we begin to think of economic disparity as a place where we can all come together, that becomes a very powerful front.
A great deal of public discourse is not about subtlety. It's about impact.
What do you think the role of an artist is as an activist – do you think it’s possible to be both?
It is still very much a taboo. One of the great perils of artistic discourse in America is that it's always ‘Arts and Entertainment.’ There is a way in which we expect our artists to entertain us and the moment they start speaking their mind on anything other than their artistic milieu, we get very upset with them. There's a very strong link between art and commerce in America. People are not able to separate your craft from your political views.
Art has the ability to bring about the highest form of discourse; to humanize us, to civilize us, and in that sense it has a higher realm than religion or politics. The stage is the best way to effect change and to effect enlightenment—which is what I think all works of art truly aspire to. I keep returning to the theater because I feel that my talents and my craft are best used here. I have incredible faith in the theater.
The construct of the artist in American society is us as entertainers and that's what was so difficult for Robeson. He was the most famous black man in the world and when you have that kind of power—if you have a bit of conscious—you know that you have to use some of that power to speak about the issues that are happening in your community.