The One-Man-Show genre is a style of theatre that I have not seen since my high school/college days. Give Them Hell Harry and Bell of Amherst were two of that style show that I recall. The one-man-show is usually a bio-reminisce program focused on a historical figure’s life and influence on society. More recently, I have seen this style of performance emerge as Living-History presentations. In our state, the West Virginia Humanities Council supports a number of these presentations, on people ranging from Clare Barton to Stonewall Jackson to Harriet Tubman to Ostenaco (Cherokee leader) who had some connection with the state. These are mostly preformed for schools and civic groups during local history events. In the current Arena Stage production, The Tallest Tree in the Forest, Daniel Beaty brings us Paul Robeson.
I recall learning a bit about Robeson during my college years: African-American singer-actor during the early to middle 20th century who was censured by the House Un-American Activities committee. Beaty also came across the legacy of Robeson during college, while training in classical voice at Yale University. Over the years, he compiled biographical vignettes, which he used to illustrate the life of Robeson.
Most one-may-shows are presented from the voice of the character recalling events of the past in a story-retelling style. Beaty turns this approach around into real-time flashbacks, giving voice to multiple characters. There are scenes between the young Paul, his brother and father; between Paul and his wife Essie; between Paul and President Truman; between Paul and Nazi police (in German); and numerous reviewers of this performances and African-American and labor movement leaders. The first couple of times that Beaty shifted his voice and body language between characters, I was taken-aback to figure out what he was doing. However, once I understood the storytelling style Beaty’s quick shifts between characters made sense.
Of course, this brings up the theatrical style decision to do a one-man-show, rather than have multiple actors portraying the scenes. First, this show would required dozens of actors, or at least several actors portraying many parts. Second, scene changes would have slowed the pace of the 2 hour show down. Beaty’s decision to go-solo made sense. He was backed up by three musicians (Kenny J Seymour, Rita Eggret, and Aron Rider) creating an atmospheric sound track and musical accompaniment for the songs that Beaty wove into the presentations.
The technical crew furthermore backed up Beaty, literally, with a back-stage performance area which was illuminated by projected images ranging from 1920’s Harlem, to the railroad station platform of Berlin, to the crowds greeting Robeson in the USA, London, and USSR. While these images usually established the current scene and provided an emotional context for the scene, the most poignant use of the projection media was during Robeson’s meeting with a Jewish poet in Moscow after WWII.
Robeson had been enamoured with what he saw in 1930’s Russia, where many racial groups, including African-Americans who had emigrated there, living with legal protections that the US government refused to consider. When he returned, he was confronted with Stalin’s incarcerations and extermination of foreign influences. While he verbally interacted with his poet friend, they passed notes with the real message of the interview. These notes were broadcast on the wall behind them. “I am doing well” (This room is bugged). “I’ve been writing some poems” (I’ve been in prison these 7 months). “I hope to publish some of them soon” (They only let me out to deceive you). “Are you well?” (leave immediately). “It is good to see you” (You are endanger all Jews in Russia).
Such dialogue, unspoken but observed, is the dilemma of Tallest Tree in the Forest. Robeson progresses from the promising scholar and lawyer, who is blocked from pursuing his career by racist expectations. He become a prominent performer who is cast in slave reminiscing roles. He develops an activist attitude, not only from his experience as a repressed African-American man, but because he links oppression to class when he happens upon a protest march in London of Welsh miners, singing labor songs, which carry the style of spirituals. He believes the USSR provides the legal ideal for society but sees this degenerate into an extension of the fascist extermination practices of WWII. He refuses to cancel concerts only to have whites-only mobs attack the audience members as they leave the venue. Finally, he refuses to deny that he is a communist to the HUAC and FBI, not that he was a communist, but that he would not play by their rules.
Robeson was essentially silenced by accusation. After a concert in which 140 audience members were injured during beatings, all of his concert engagements were cancelled in the USA. His passport was revoked, preventing him from earning a living in Europe. Recording studios would not schedule him time to make records. Radios would not play his songs, both depriving him of royalties and taking his voice off the air. Symbolically he was lynched, the practice that he had been bringing to the political forefront without response. He would be forgotten, for the most part, by the Civil Rights Movements in the 1960’s, though he had set the foundation on which those leaders continued to build.
We no longer have lynchings of African-American men and women. Most African-American communities have their middle-class and elite members and leaders. Mixed race marriages do not carry death-threats. We are a better society, not utopian, but better for the efforts of prior generations. But, without understanding of where we have come, we lose the history that allows us to be where we are today, as well as where we should develop legal and social systems for future generations.
Paul Robeson’s father was a slave, who became a minister and could read Latin and Greek. Robeson became a lawyer, singer, actor, and activist. Other leaders pursued freedoms after Robeson. Beaty continues to bring this legacy through his studies in acting, voice, and public speaking. Coincidentally, while Robeson was silenced for nearly two decades before his had a stroke after which he died, that stoke occurred on December 28, 1975, the day the Beaty was born. Stories are to be learned and told. Legacy passes from generation to generation. Progress must have knowledge of the past, awareness of the present, and attention to the future.