Photo by Don Ipock, courtesy of Arena Stage
Ragtime Piano composed and performed by Lee Blaske
Excerpts from "The Tallest Tree in the Forest, “ courtesy of Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater.
“Knock Knock” written and performed by Daniel Beaty; used courtesy of Mr. Beaty.
Daniel Beaty: I have had a real curiosity and interest in Robeson for a long time, since I was a student at Yale. . One of the things that I say in the play is that he was indeed the most famous black man in the world, one of the most famous people in the world regardless of race truly, but when you are tried in the court of public opinion and you lose it has long-lasting, far-reaching ramifications so one of my goals in the writing of the play is to put Robeson back in the social discourse. Particularly, I feel that his understanding of the links between race and class have very powerful things to tell us about this moment in our world.
Jo Reed: That's Daniel Beaty talking about his play The Tallest Tree In the Forest. which chronicles the life of Paul Robeson. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
Daniel Beaty is a triple-threat--he is an actor, singer, and writer. He wrote and stars in the one-man show, The Tallest Tree in the Forest-- In The Tallest Tree, Beaty plays the legendary Paul Robeson as well as some forty other characters both famous and not, who crossed Robeson's path. Beaty is known for performing a multitude of characters on stage-- he wrote and performed in two earlier award-winning solo- plays EMERGENCY and Through the Night. But Beaty can and does write for others actors as well--- his play Resurrection was written for an ensemble and won a New American Play Award. A member of the New Dramatists and an adjunct professor at Columbia University, Daniel Beaty has recently written two books —Knock Knock, a children’s book, and Transforming Pain to Power.
Daniel Beaty was a student of classical voice at Yale University when he first discovered Paul Robeson. Beaty was struck by the beauty and power of Robeson's voice. But he became more astonished and intrigued by the breadth and depth of Robeson's career. Robeson's artistry and achievements coupled with his commitment to social justice and activism inspired Daniel Beaty to write his play.
Daniel Beaty: “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” is about the life of Paul Robeson, the artist and activist, a son of a slave, Rutgers valedictorian, Phi Beta Kappa scholar, Columbia University lawyer, all-American football player, star of stage and screen, international activist for working people and people of color, African people all over the world, and he lived and was at the height of his career during the McCarthy era and the cold scare and all of that. And so much of his career was the artist as the activist and the play really tracks the evolution of him as an artist, as an activist and all of the things that came as a result.
Jo Reed: And that’s what you see as the heart of “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” looking at that trajectory.
Daniel Beaty: Yeah. The real question, the dramatic question of the play, is what about the character of Paul Robeson caused him to choose his activism at the expense of his art because that was really ultimately the choice. There are moments in the beginning when he was very much just an artist. There are moments when his artistry and his activisms danced together very well and then there was the final chapter of his life when his art and his access to share his art was greatly challenged because of social, political choices he made.
Jo Reed: It is interesting too because in talking to people and saying, “Oh, this is what I’m doing. I’m going to see this play, ‘The Tallest Tree in the Forest,’ about Paul Robeson” and people I think should have known better had this kind of quizzical look on their face, but then in doing some reading around the background of your play that in fact there is a way he’s not as present as one would think he would be.
Daniel Beaty: Absolutely. One of the things that I say in the play is that he was indeed the most famous black man in the world, one of the most famous people in the world regardless of race truly, but when you are tried in the court of public opinion and you lose it has long-lasting, far-reaching ramifications so one of my goals in the writing of the play is to put Robeson back in the social discourse. Particularly, I feel that his understanding of the links between race and class have very powerful things to tell us about this moment in our world.
Jo Reed: Yeah, it is interesting because there is this popular myth that if you’re a true artist you don’t have politics and apparently people never saw Richard the Third but you know, when you just look back at what we consider to be the canon it’s rife with politics.
Daniel Beaty: Absolutely, even our composers of opera and all kinds of people throughout time. Robeson is quoted as saying, “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom over slavery.” I’m of that belief. I believe that to be an entertainer, those of us who are blessed to be called by our peers as artists, we owe a great responsibility. We exist because people take their time, they take their money, they take their energy to come listen to what we have to share, and I believe that the least we can do is whatever is important to us, whatever is urgent to us, to use what platform we have in the way that feels truthful to us to speak about those things.
Jo Reed: Yeah. Alice Walker said, and I’m sure I’m mangling this quote, but it’s “Activism is the rent I pay for living in this world.”
Daniel Beaty: That’s beautiful absolutely, yeah.
Jo Reed: You inhabit some 40 characters in this play. Why the decision to have it as a one-man show?
Daniel Beaty: You know, I have had a real curiosity and interest in Robeson for a long time, since I was a student at Yale, and he meets so many people in his life and he goes so many different places literally all over the world that it would have either been a cast of 20 <laughs> or it would have been one or a smaller cast of actors playing multiple roles. I have played multiple roles in several of my other plays, not all, but I play “Emergency” and I play “Through the Night” so it’s a facility that I have and I feel like there’s something about the actor taking-- the actor/singer taking on the mammoth task of playing all these characters, singing the 14 songs they sing in the play, the various accents that honors the size of what Robeson’s project was and what his career was.
Jo Reed: Well, you really do put those characters on and off and in only one occasion do you have anything that resembles a prop.
Daniel Beaty: Right <laughs>
Jo Reed: And that’s very small. I mean it really is done with your voice and with your posture.
Daniel Beaty: Right, yes, absolutely. I get at least one massage, if I can swing it two massages a week just because my body ends up being so sore from contorting it to all the different positions, and also, you know, supporting to sing classically, to sing with a full, open voice is actually quite an athletic exercise and then also the exercising to keep the stamina up. The show’s about two hours and fifteen minutes---
Jo Reed: And you begin with a bold move. You come out singing “Old Man River.
”<audio clip of Beaty singing "Old Man River">
Daniel Beaty: Exactly, but you know, that was also very intentional. Unfortunately, many people do not know who Paul Robeson is and those who do they say, “Oh, that’s that guy who sang that song in ‘Showboat,’ who sang ‘Old Man River’”; or “Oh, maybe it’s-- that was that guy was that communist.” Those are the little, small things that people say about him, and so I start the play very on addressing both of those starting points and entry points that people have and then I spend a lot of the play dissecting what was his feeling around singing “Old Man River” and was he really a communist or not, and so that’s how that happens.
Jo Reed: What kind of research did you do in order to begin to write about Robeson?
Daniel Beaty: I have read so many books, so many interviews with Robeson, so many interviews with people talking about him, people who reviewed his works, watched his films, listened to recordings, and watched numerous documentaries on his life. It ends up being a-- really a huge task of research to write a historical work like this. And I think probably any time you want to honor a historical figure with the level of complexity that their lives deserve it’s going to be a lot of research, but I think that Robeson’s particularly challenging because he’s not like a Dr. King that there have already been many things written about so there’s a certain understanding of the big moments of his life. He’s someone for most people they don’t know.
Jo Reed: Well, one very pivotal moment is when he goes to London and he sees striking miners.
Daniel Beaty: Uh-huh.
Jo Reed: Set that up for us.
Daniel Beaty: There is a moment where he’s been challenged in the press, some of the black press actually, by playing what was considered the stereotypical role of Joe in “Showboat,” he’s having some personal challenges in his marriage, and he heads out of the theater at a matinee and he hears the sound of Welsh miners who are striking. And he hears first in their music a shared experience, a shared experience of struggle but also of fight, and then in the experience of marching with them and understanding their trouble, that people were dying in the mines, that people were not being paid enough he finds a similarity. And that is really as I portray it in the play one of the first and core openings that what he is doing as an actor/singer will not be enough for him in his life.
Jo Reed: The difficulty he had of being a black man with dignity as an actor, as a performer during the ‘20s, the ‘30s, the ‘40s that was a real struggle for him.
Daniel Beaty: Absolutely. When you have a talent and you want the opportunity to express that talent you’re constantly in search of opportunities, and certainly there are people who create their own works or produce their own works, which he actually ultimately ended up doing. He was one of the producers on the “Othello” production that succeeded so well on Broadway but that was an evolution, and that was actually almost the result of so many years of playing these roles where he thought he could fulfill them with dignity and portray them with dimensional humanity and was continually finding that the film would be edited in a way that did not honor that or the audience would receive what he was doing in a completely different way or literally the limitations of what was being written his greatest intentions could not exceed those.
Jo Reed: And his going to the Soviet Union was another pivotal moment for him because he had a very romantic view of the Soviet Union and one that was certainly shared by many leftists then.
Daniel Beaty: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I think that one of the things that’s particular about Robeson with the Soviet Union in particular is that-- and I talk about it-- they were-- the Soviet Union and the U.S. were obviously allies during the war and Robeson was-- had a period of time when he was completely aligned with the course of the world, the course of the United States. And there was a time when the direction of the United States shifted and Robeson refused to shift and there are great consequences because of that, but the thing that I found because I was always so curious, what was it about the Soviet Union, what was it about, and you know, I had the understanding that there were people of different races that were working together and coexisting and the romantic-- not even just romantic, the humanity that one could feel by being in an environment like that when what they experienced before was so different, but it still wasn’t quite enough for me for a man of Robeson’s intellect and his intelligence. And what I began to clarify for myself was that the fact that there were legal protections. And he too was a lawyer and so the fact that the Soviet Union had legal protections, that all races were equal by law, that was a model, that was a system that he was so passionate about seeing exist particularly in the United States and other parts of the world.
Jo Reed: And his trip to the Soviet Union certainly put him under the gaze of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI and thus began this dossier on him.
Daniel Beaty: Yeah, absolutely. There are books out-- there’s a book that was released, this title is not on my mind right now, but there was literally the Robeson FBI files that were released and I said, “My goodness, they were following this man everywhere.” And I say in the play, you know, he was the tallest tree in the forest; his height enabled him to see what most could not; his grandeur stretched to continents. And he was someone to pay attention to because he did achieve a height of celebrity that few people ever would achieve and he stretched so many places and spaces that he wasn’t just you know meeting with the President of the United States; he was meeting with the kings and queens of other nations, leaders of labor movements in other nations. I mean he was really meeting with lots of people who had tremendous power to influence masses of people. Robeson-- call it a heroic quality or a tragic flaw-- he knew that his perspective gave him a unique purview and he made choices that were extremely challenging choices based on how he viewed the world from his unique perspective and the change that he wanted to see happen in the world, and I can’t imagine that those choices were easy for him.
Jo Reed: He stands up to the House on Un-American Activities--
Daniel Beaty: Yeah. He files I believe those 25 applications for his passport to be reinstated—
Jo Reed: Oh, right, because his passport was taken away.
Daniel Beaty: It was taken away and that was the last straw to his ability to make a living--
Jo Reed: Oh right, because he can’t work in the United States because nobody will hire him but the United States will not let him go anywhere else where he could support himself and do his art.
Daniel Beaty: Yeah, he eventually gets his moment in the court and the lawyer that is Robeson, the fighter that is Robeson, the man of tremendous diction and power in the midst of having been beaten down for years sort of has, as is done in this play, his final aria of-- and proclamation of self--
<clip of Beaty performing in The Tallest Tree in the Forest>
"I am here, and I am an artist, and a scholar! And I am here with my beloved people to speak out against the injustice towards the Negro people of this land.! I must speak up for the rights of workers everywhere,! I must speak up for the freedom of Africa, that is why I am here! I don not regret anything since, or anything that I have done! If you want freedom, sometimes you have to suffer for it!"
Jo Reed: He put his career on the line,
Daniel Beaty: Right
Jo Reed: On the altar actually and sacrificed it.
Daniel Beaty: Yeah, and I think that he sacrificed his career for the belief that all people should have the right to realize their full potential and that in the United States what was happening in terms of race relations needed legal protection and needed a level of change that had been resisted for so long--and the lynchings that were taking place in the nation, the way Negro soldiers were treated postwar-- the war, the economic inequalities that were still so prevalent he felt an urgency which caused him to sacrifice everything.
Jo Reed: What led to you performing?
Daniel Beaty: I have been performing since I was a small child. I grew up in a household that had many challenges which are unfortunately common to our urban centers. My father has been in and out of prison my entire life. He’s actually been incarcerated 59 times and also dealt with addiction, heroin addiction, and I have an older brother who’s also been in and out of prison and dealt with addiction to crack cocaine. And the arts have been the place since I was a small boy where I was able to take my fears, negotiate the chaos of my home, the chaos of what was happening in my own heart and mind and to be able to put it someplace that was productive versus destructive, and so that-- that’s really how the performance started for me.
Jo Reed: If I read this correctly, you started writing and giving inspirational speeches when you were in the third grade?
Daniel Beaty: I did, yes. There’s a teacher, Mavis Jackson, I was in this program called AT, Academically Talented, and she challenged third-graders to do things that other third-graders would not normally do, that an adult might do because she’s challenging us to expand our creativity and our intelligence. And she or someone else had played a recording of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and I went to her and I said, “I want to do that” and Mrs. Jackson helped me write my first speech, which is called “I Think the Best, I Expect the Best,” and she called all of the service organizations, Optimists, Kiwanis, Rotary, NAACP and said, “I’ve got this third-grader who’s written a speech. Can he come to one of your meetings and share?” And before I realized what’s happening I was being invited all over the country to come give these speeches.
Jo Reed: What was that like for you at that age?
Daniel Beaty: Well, it was really life’s blood. I mean I wish that I could couch it in an experience of joy or celebration but what it really was is that there was a lot of sadness all around me and I wanted to believe that something better existed in the world. And so these stories of hope that I was writing in these speeches as a little kid I think the best I expected the best, the dream is alive and all of these things that I was saying and learning about positive thinking, I was trying to encourage others at the same time I was trying to encourage myself.
Jo Reed: And from there you went into acting, performing?
Daniel Beaty: Yeah, I went into acting and performing. The speaking opened so many doors for me and I was invited to test for a scholarship at a very fancy private school after they heard me speak for the Black History Month program and all the top universities were sending me letters by the time I was a junior inviting me to apply and that let me go into Yale and getting into more singing and acting and then to a graduate program for acting and to the career I have now.
Jo Reed: You went to Yale for classical singing.
Daniel Beaty: I did singing there and I did music. I studied with a really wonderful teacher there named Lili Chookasian and then had the opportunity to study with George Shirley in some summer training that I did, and even studied with Franco Corelli in Italy. Yes, I had some really incredible experiences.
Jo Reed: And you spent two seasons on Russell Simmons’ Def Jam.
Daniel Beaty: Yes, absolutely. When I got into New York City I arrived a little bit before September 11th, 2001, and not only am I a particular talent-- I mean everybody has different gifts so I didn’t fit and ease right into the traditional industry of just cast him in this role, but the industry was just also off but beyond all of that I feel like my soul and my life’s direction was calling me to a different experience. And I began teaching in communities very similar to the one I had grown up with young people facing lots of challenges and I wanted to be able to communicate about it. I wanted to use the training I had received at that point to put it in an expression that could make other people present to the urgency of what’s happening in our urban centers, and I found that the world of spoken word was a bite-size passionate way in community where I could talk about these things and have a platform so that’s really how that emerged.
Jo Reed: Well, your poem “Knock Knock” took off on You Tube. It’s gotten a gazillion hits. It’s such a powerful performance.
Daniel Beaty: Yeah. “Knock Knock” is a poem that I actually talk about visiting my father in prison as a child and he actually retold me the story as I was an adult visiting him in prison.
<clip of Beaty reciting the poem, " Knock Knock">
As a boy, I shared a game with my father—
Played it every morning till I was three.
He would knock knock on my door,
And I’d pretend to be asleep till he got right next to the bed.
Then I would get up and jump into his arms.
“Good morning, Papa.”
And my Papa, he would tell me that he loved me.
We shared a game,
Until that day when the knock never came,
And my Mama takes me on a ride past cornfields
on this never-ending highway
Till we reach a place of high rusty gates.
A confused little boy,
I enter the building carried in my Mama’s arms.
We reach a room of windows and brown faces.
Behind one of the windows sits my father.
I jump out of my Mama’s arms and run joyously towards my Papa’s,
Only to be confronted by this window.
I knock knock trying to break through the glass,
Trying to get to my father.
I knock knock as my Mama pulls me away
Before my Papa even says a word.
And for years, he has never said a word.
And so, 25 years later, I write these words
For the little boy in me who still awaits his Papa’s knock.
“Papa, come home, ‘cause I miss you.
I miss you waking me up in the morning and telling me you love me.
Papa, come home, ‘cause there’s things I don’t know,
And I thought maybe you could teach me
How to shave,
How to dribble a ball,
How to talk to a lady,
How to walk like a man.
Papa, come home, ‘cause I decided awhile back
I want to be just like you, but I’m forgetting who you are.”
And 25 years later, a little boy cries.
And so I write these words and try to heal
And try to father myself.
And I dream up a father
Who says the words my father did not.
“Dear son, I’m sorry I never came home.
For ever lesson I failed to teach, hear these words:
‘Shave in one direction with strong deliberate strokes
To avoid irritation.
Dribble the page with the brilliance of your ballpoint pen.
Walk like a God, and your Goddess will come to you.
No longer will I be there to knock on your door,
So you must learn to knock for yourself.
Knock knock down doors of racism and poverty that I could not.
Knock knock on doors of opportunity
For the lost brilliance of the black men who crowd these cells.
Knock knock with diligence for the sake of your children.
Knock knock for me.
For as long as you are free,
These prison gates cannot contain my spirit.
The best of me still lives in you.
Knock knock with the knowledge that you are my son,
But you are not my choices.”
Yes, we are our fathers’ sons and daughters,
But we are not their choices.
For despite their absences,
We are still here,
With the power to change this world
One little boy and girl at a time.
Daniel Beaty: “Knock Knock” has been one of those huge blessings in my life. I know our deepest pain is often in the past our highest purpose and “Knock Knock” has been turned into a children’s book that just published in—
Jo Reed: You turned it into a children’s book.
Daniel Beaty: Yes, I turned it into-- I wrote it as a children’s book that published in December and Ford Foundation, a production company, is doing a documentary on my larger work with children of incarcerated parents that’s sort of really been prompted by that poem. And I have another book that’s coming out called “Transforming Pain to Power,” which is these exercises that I’ve used personally to heal from trauma and in workshops for about a decade. And so one of the things that was really profound for me is that in my healing journey a big part of my challenges were healing from the trauma of my abandonment by my father ‘cause he was there the first three years, as I talk about in “Knock Knock,” a very loving, affectionate man, but because of his addiction and the resulting challenges he was all of a sudden uprooted from my life and a space in my heart was empty. And I developed a myriad of coping mechanisms in response to that and for a while there were-- was resentment, there was sadness in the space of that, but what I came to discover as I healed and healed and healed over years is that I am who I am because my father was exactly who he was and in many ways that pain and that challenge has been the greatest gift to my life. And so the book “Transforming Pain to Power,” which I’m so excited about, is really tracking that journey that I went through myself in hopes that it can be useful to somebody else.
Jo Reed: When did you begin writing ‘because you’ve written many plays?
Daniel Beaty: Yes. <laughs> I’m a scrapper. I don’t believe in the word “no” and I have some-- a saying that I often say, “Others may be confused about who you are but what’s important is that you’re not confused,” and I believe we all are unlimited and have infinite potential that can really do anything as if we can believe it. And so my writing really emerged out of being told I didn’t fit in this industry and being underestimated in terms of what I could contribute and whether or not I would have a space. And I knew there were things that I cared about in the world that were really urgent and I knew that I had an expansive enough creativity that if I just learned the skills I could put that in a creative form and that’s really how it happened.
Jo Reed: You’re in New York and you’re writing plays. Isn’t “Emergency” one of the first?
Daniel Beaty: “Emergency” is one of the first, yeah,
Jo Reed: Yeah and how do you then get this mounted somewhere?
Daniel Beaty: Yeah, absolutely. People ask me that all the time and I think particularly young writers or performers they want the secret—
Jo Reed: Right. There isn’t. I find it’s usually determination mixed with luck.
Daniel Beaty: Yeah, absolutely, and the other thing is that I really believe that we have to build new systems and new models and you have to build from a space of collaboration and from a space of people who get it, right. So I think a lot of young writers and performers or people in general who are trying to make something happen spend a little bit too much time trying to convince the people who don’t get it, but my theory and the way I worked was who are the people who do get it, and I was willing to give it away before anybody would buy it. And so what I basically did was I took my money from being a teaching artist and I would rent a space, I’d invite anybody I knew who got it because they just cared about me, and then because I’ve always written social, political work I literally e-mailed, called organizations that I thought had some affinity with what it is that I was writing about, talking about, and again invited them to come for free. And I would just continue to try to do the highest-level work I can and continue to build from a base of there are people in this world for whom what I have to say means something and if I say it with integrity and heart and excellence in their presence it will build. And what ended up happening is that I built an audience of such size that people began to take notice and that’s literally the genesis of my career.
Jo Reed: That’s wonderful. You have devoted a lot of your time as you said working with youth of parents who are incarcerated, doing a lot of community work with kids.
Daniel Beaty: Absolutely, definitely. I-- what happened with “Knock Knock” and people seeing my play is that people in the nonprofit sector really started calling me to come to conferences to perform or to speak, foundations started to invite me, and I realized that my perspective on many issues, on the state of young people in our urban centers, the urgency of what’s going on with black men and boys, the nature of mass incarceration in this country, the really untold story of the 2.7 to 2.8 million children of incarcerated parents in this country, that all of these issues that I knew personally and felt so urgent about gave me a platform. And once I was in the space of that platform, invited often to perform or just to speak, people are-- were shocked that I actually wanted to stay and sit in the different panels for the conference and actually participate and have ideas because I would be the only person in the arts there often. And what I’ve come to discover is that I believe part of the reason why we’re so off as a nation is that artists are not taking our rightful place in the social discourse. We are not just here to inspire and to entertain, we know something about humanity and about communication and about story and about narrative that is desperate for us to be our best selves as human beings, and so my community work is largely rooted in that. I don’t show up as a psychologist; I don’t show up as a politician. I show up as a person whose expertise is in the arts and what about narrative and what about story and what about knowing how to be present and what about knowing the complexities of emotion and human communication can help us in these very difficult conversations that we still have yet to have and an effective way around race, class, polarization difference in this nation and in our larger world. So I was-- have been very blessed to receive some funding from the Kellogg Foundation and the Ford Foundation and some other foundations now to pilot a program using the tools of storytelling to empower individuals and communities to heal generational trauma. And so that’s where I spend I would say about half of my life and we’re piloting it right now in Watts, which is where all the Crips and the Bloods and a lot of the gangs have that worst situation, Omaha, Nebraska, which has been recently named unfortunately the most dangerous place to be black in America, which one would not think, and then never, and then Boston, Massachusetts, which has huge legacy around race with the busing.
Jo Reed: You make me feel very optimistic; you really do. I think it would be marvelous to have artists at the vanguard of this because it’s so sorely needed.
Daniel Beaty: Absolutely.
Jo Reed: Daniel, thank you. I know you have a show to do and I do not want to keep you but it’s been such a pleasure truly.
Daniel Beaty: The pleasure’s been mine, Jo. Thank you so much. Thank you.
Jo Reed: That's actor, singer, and writer, Daniel Beaty---His one-man play about Paul Robeson--The Tallest Tree in the Forest is playing at Washington DC's Arena Stage until Feb 16. Daniel is taking the play to the Mark Taper Forum in LA in Mid-April.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced by the National Endowment For the Arts.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at Arts.gov. You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U; just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Daniel Beaty's play and bravura performance in The Tallest Tree in the Forest shines a light on the artistry and activism of Paul Robeson. [31:48]