Some voices are so unmistakable, so incredibly distinctive that they seem to burn into your memory, even your soul. You don't have to hear such a voice in person; a recording, however old and worn, will do the trick.
That's how I fell under the spell of so many great singers from the past. Ponselle. Callas. Bjorling. And Paul Robeson, the subject of "The Tallest Tree in the Forest," a fascinating play written and performed by Daniel Beaty at Arena Stage in a sterling production directed by Moises Kaufman.
With Robeson, of course, you are dealing with much, much more than a deep, enveloping, bottomless tone and vividly communicative phrasing. He was an intrepid activist for civil rights well before there was an organized movement in this country, and he became one of the most famous activists for workers throughout the world.
Robeson's embrace of the Soviet Union -- he convinced himself racial equality was set in legal stone there -- caused him to be branded a traitor by many at home. He never fully recovered his stature after that. At his death in 1975, he left a complicated legacy, one well worth digging into. Beaty, who was born the day Robeson died, is a superb excavator.
I confess that I don't get too enthusiastic about one-man bio-plays. There have been so many, almost always involving a narrative format, a parade of names and dates, flurries of flashbacks. But Beaty has managed to fashion a fresh approach, one that imparts history and insight with relatively few cliches or creaky detours. (The play originated at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Plyhouse, and was developed by Teutonic Theatre Project.)
The author/actor's many talents do not include the ability to approximate Robeson's singing. But no one could really duplicate that sterling bass sound, any more than someone today could conjure up Callas.
What counts is that, almost magically, Beaty makes you feel as if you are hearing the real thing each time music rises up in this absorbing bio-play. This is nowhere more striking than in the powerful scene about the 1949 concert Robeson gave in Peekskill, N.Y., where a peaceful audience of thousands was viciously attacked by a mob of anti-communists, anti-blacks, anti-Semites.
Beaty's performance of the spiritual "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel" during that scene has an electric charge, and in that moment, the whole complex history and shining art of Robeson come together to striking effect.
When it comes to all the other voices in the play, Beaty does terrific work. Early in the first act, the actor achieves quite affecting results in scenes involving a young Robeson, his older brother and their father (who leads Paul in reading the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" in tandem -- in the original Greek, no less).
Beaty goes on to imitate one person after another -- Robeson's wife Essie, newscasters, a Welsh miner, writer/educator Jamal Joseph (lecturing on "comfortable black history"), politicians and more -- with telling characteristics.
Throughout, he has the benefit of a vibrant set designed by Derek McLane that makes good use of projections (John Narun). Kaufman's astute direction ensures a smooth, taut flow of the action. Providing solid accompaniment for the vocal numbers are music director Kenny J. Seymour (conducting from the piano), woodwind player Rita Eggert and cellist Aron Rider.
Although Robeson's signature song, "Ol' Man River" (in the original version, with the N-word), gets too much of a workout, the other musical choices add greatly to the play. The spirituals, in particular, take on added meaning in this context ("Scandalize My Name" makes a perfect segue into Robeson's grilling by the House on Un-American Activities Committee).
And it is the music that adds tremendous weight to the story of Robeson's 1949 visit to the Soviet Union, when Stalin's purges against Jews were underway. Beaty covers this difficult chapter sensitively, first enacting the singer's encounter with soon-to-be-executed poet Itzik Feffer, then re-creating the remarkably brave gesture when Robeson ended a Moscow concert with a song in Yiddish from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Not everything he did was so heroic. He had more than enough flaws, not the least of which was his self-serving approach to marriage, and Beaty allows enough of those in to avoid a fawning portrait. The Robeson who emerges so engagingly here is a multidimensional man who deserves a fresh appraisal, a man who believed wholeheartedly that "the artist must take sides."
"The Tallest Tree in the Forest" makes a compelling case that Robeson chose the right one.