The Kansas City Repertory Theatre's world-premiere season opener takes on a formidable task: capturing the passions and politics of one of America's most iconic performers, the rhapsodic musician, actor and social activist Paul Robeson. Developed with the Tectonic Theatre Project and directed by veteran Moises Kaufman, Daniel Beaty's one-man The Tallest Tree in the Forest collates a series of short scenes and historical snapshots to piece together a dramatic timeline of Robeson's life and work.
We check in with Robeson at formative moments: his stint as the first African-American (and first string linebacker) on the Rutgers football team, his marriage to chemist-turned-anthropologist Eslanda "Essie" Goode, his artistic rise through the Harlem Renaissance and onto the silver screen.
There's also his affair with actress Uta Hagen and his controversial support of the Soviet Union (and, later, his failure to denounce Stalin's treatment of Russian Jews). The script doesn't flinch from ugly realities, though the scattered approach paints Robeson as a victim of turbulent influences and competing ideologies. On the one hand, his father's insistence that he show white folks he's "grateful." On the other, his fiery brother Reeve's insistence that Paul "fight until the end," that "if you have to go, take one with you."
Beaty's range and athleticism are worthy of Robeson's. He commands the stage with numerous postures and personas, shifting seamlessly between multiple roles — at times, playing three different characters in the same scene. His specificity keeps the play's jumps in chronology and character from devolving into confusion. Each transition feels confident and precise, with Beaty furnishing even the most tertiary characters with their own distinct palettes of gesture, expression and inflection.
Unfortunately, that variety and specificity don't extend to Beaty's portrayal of Robeson himself, when he can sound at times stilted, the voice of an icon instead of a man. We get occasional glimpses of humor and vulnerability — some joking with Essie, a generous and tender rendition of "Shortnin' Bread" — but nothing sustains. It's understandable to err on the side of grandeur for a man deprived of dignity for so long. Robeson's name was soiled by anti-American accusations during the McCarthy era, and Beaty seems determined to give him his due. Fair enough. But that solemn treatment also distances us emotionally, gives us gravitas when we crave humanity.
The music moves us closer. Beaty's voice is rich and operatic, and skillful music direction by Kenny J. Seymour lends the classic tunes new emotional power. The songs resonate most successfully when Beaty allows himself to relax in passages — as in "Steal Away" and "Scandalize" — dipping into his own, softer cadences instead of striving for Robeson's inimitable bass-baritone.
Beaty's show delivers a sense of dramatic arc, but it never quite coalesces into something greater than the sum of its individual songs and scenes. Still, the Rep's elegant staging and Beaty's prodigious talent succeed in creating a musically lush, historically fascinating portrait of a man both revered and radicalized.