(Charles Isherwood’s article appeared in The New York Times, 3/24.)
The lives of actors often contain heady highs and dispiriting lows, so fragile is their hold on the public’s imagination and their access to the levers of power in the industry. But the story of Paul Robeson, the great African-American performer who achieved international fame in the 1920s and ’30s, only to be condemned for his political beliefs and branded a Communist during the witch hunts of the ’50s, is a particularly egregious example of a star falling at warp speed.
The extraordinary arc of Robeson’s life and career is resurrected with grace in “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” an engrossing solo show written and performed by Daniel Beaty, and directed by Moisés Kaufman. In the production, which can be seen through Sunday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Mr. Beaty portrays Robeson and various men and women who cross his path, including his father, his brother and his wife, nearly 40 roles in all. He is joined by a trio of musicians who provide able accompaniment for his accomplished renditions of songs associated with Robeson, most memorably “Ol’ Man River,” with which he opens the show. That song, from “Show Boat,” is perhaps the one most linked to Robeson, although he didn’t originate the role of Joe in the Broadway production of “Show Boat” but was recruited to star in the London version, which made his name. (He later starred in the 1936 movie.)