Paul Robeson, the world-famous African-American actor of the mid-20th century, who used his celebrity to support controversial political causes around the world and was subsequently denounced by his own country and subjected to the terrors of McCarthyism, is the subject of Daniel Beaty’s engrossing and comprehensive one-man show “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” in which he plays Robeson and countless others in Robeson’s life.
Beaty is best known for solo shows that combine his remarkable abilities as a performer and storyteller with a journalist-like exploration of contemporary culture and human behavior.
From the start, Beaty proves that he has the deep baritone voice and towering presence to portray Robeson by singing “Ol’ Man River,” which Robeson sang in the 1936 film version of “Show Boat” and continues to be identified with.
Robeson started out as a scholar and athlete in college and then a law student, ultimately quitting the law due to open racism and trying acting instead, where he quickly found success in the plays of Eugene O’Neill, including the nightmare-driven “The Emperor Jones.”
Beaty explores how Robeson believed that a gifted individual such as himself had an obligation to speak out against injustice. He also highlights Robeson’s obstinate behavior, including how he openly cheated on his wife and refused to speak out against Stalinist Russia, even after learning first hand of the massacre of Russian Jews.
Although there is a striking set design in which Beaty is surrounded by massive spotlights and old-fashioned microphones, plus occasional video projections, the show is really dependent upon Beaty’s ability to modulate his voice to change character. It might work better with fewer visuals and in a smaller space.
If you go: “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” plays at the BAM Harvey Theater through March 29. 651 Fulton St., bam.org.