In terms of international stature and influence, Paul Robeson, who died in 1976, was the most direct antecedent — politically, philosophically and even in the way he conduced his personal life — to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both men linked the tenets of their Christianity to progressive causes; the politics of both stemmed from the treatment of blacks in the American South, and how that treatment crashed into constitutional principles; both were champions of the American labor movement (King was assassinated while speaking on behalf of garbage workers in Memphis); both achieved international fame; and both stepped out on their wives.
Maya Angelou was one of about 50 prominent African-American complainants (also including James Baldwin, Coretta Scott King and Detroit Mayor Coleman Young) who took out a two-age ad in Variety in the late 1970s against Paul Robeson, Phillip Hayes Dean's one-man play (performed with a piano accompanist) about the singer and crusader. It was being performed at Washington, D.C.'s National Theatre in 1977, before heading to Broadway in 1978. The ad described the play as a "pernicious perversion of the essence of Paul Robeson."
Dean was in L.A. earlier this year directing Keith David in the title role of his most famous play in a marvelous staging for Ebony Rep at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. (Byron J. Smith accompanies him on piano and joins him in song, beautifully.) That production closes on April 27. Dean died unexpectedly from the complications of a heart condition on April 14.
David cuts a persuasive figure of Robeson, rolling through the character's life, marriage and international intrigues with some jocularity, so that the mostly first-person narrative comes sprinkled with self-effacing charm. The play has the guts to show Robeson condemning the British aristocracy (in whose parlors Robeson sang) for their alliance with the Nazis when fascism was sweeping across Europe. (The Brits advised him to keep his mouth shut.) Dean's play comes peppered with references to Homer and Shakespeare, so that Robeson's life is filtered through a poetical lens. There are no video backdrops to the bare stage containing a few padded chairs and a Steinway. It's all in the words, and the songs.
Dean claimed he never understood what exactly caused the outrage among black intellectuals against his play in the '70s. He was at the time defended in an open letter signed by Edward Albee, Paddy Chayefsky, Lillian Hellman, Betty Comden and Garson Kanin, among others, and his critics could do little to prevent the play from being revived on Broadway twice (in 1988 and 1995), by which time the protests against it had dissipated.
Perhaps it was the candor with which the play portrayed Robeson's dissembling and reversals before the House Un-American Activities Committee when refusing to condemn what was becoming an increasingly tyrannical Soviet Union. By 1995, the Soviet Union was history, as was the Red Scare on these shores.
Will anyone join me in taking out a two-page ad in Variety condemning the "pernicious perversion of the essence of Paul Robeson" in writer-performer's Daniel Beaty's new play The Tallest Tree in the Forest, a one-man show starring Beaty as Paul Robeson, directed by Moisés Kaufman to accent the obvious, also with songs and musical accompaniment? My ad would be entirely on artistic grounds.
Beaty's play covers much the same terrain as Dean's, but with considerably less poeticism, nuance and insight. It skips the part about the British aristocrats being pro-Hitler, stemming from their mutual contempt for Communism. It's a child's-eye view of Robeson's world, in which Beaty portrays the giant man as well as all the characters he interacts with. When, returning to Robeson, he bellows out one of the play-closing lines, "My voice will be heard!" I couldn't help but think how much more dignified the closing to Dean's play is, with Robeson at age 75 quietly thanking the people who had been part of his life. Beaty's play emphasizes Robeson's infidelity to his wife, making that an issue via repeated references to it; Dean's play raises the subject once, then dismisses it as a non-issue. When referring to people with the capacity to change the world for the better, I'll take the latter approach.
Beaty is a fine actor and has a great voice, though nothing that resembles Robeson's. David, as the other Robeson, has the weaker singing instrument of the two, but he's closer in soulfulness and voice to Robeson.
Beaty's play is a world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, presented simultaneously by Center Theatre Group, La Jolla Playhouse, Kansas City Repertory Theatre and Tectonic Theater Project. How many institutional theaters does it take to fuck up a play, and the memory of the great man it purports to represent?
One example sums up the difference in the quality of the storytelling. Both plays depict a scene where Robeson meets with Harry Truman regarding the lynchings of black soldiers in the South, upon their return from World War II. Beaty's play uses the shortcut that Truman dismissed the appeal. Dean's play artfully sets up the confrontation with a description of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's funeral, and all the dreams of the left that were being buried with him. There was a little man from Missouri walking in the procession, Harry Truman. In Dean's play, Truman orders a committee review of the allegations, and then, finally, does nothing with the results.
The difference may seem minor at first glance, but after more than two hours in the theater, such differences in tone and detail accrue.
PAUL ROBESON | Written and directed by Phillip Hayes Dean | Ebony Repertory Theatre at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 Washington Blvd., Mid-City | Through April 27 | ebonyrep.org
THE TALLEST TREE IN THE FOREST | Written by Daniel Beaty | Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Through May 25 | centertheatregroup.org