When Paul Robeson declared that "the artist must take sides," he was referring to, in his own words, the "fight for freedom or slavery." The activist film and stage actor was also talking about the fight for dignity, respect and the common wants to which so many oppressed people are denied.
This truth is dramatized in The Tallest Tree in the Forest, a world-premiere play with music by Daniel Beaty that's a co-production of La Jolla Playhouse and Kansas City Repertory Theatre. As much a two-act history lesson as a portrait of Robeson, Tallest Tree crosses oceans, as well as racial divides, on its journey into the courageous, if conflicted, soul of a man who should never be forgotten.
Though the lyrically troubling "Ol' Man River" (from Showboat) is the song for which the African- American Robeson will always be remembered, it's important to be reminded, as we are by The Tallest Tree in the Forest, that Robeson's booming voice relentlessly cried out for civil rights at the risk of his own life.
Beaty wrote and stars in this one-man show, directed by Moises Kaufman. But this is no static, extended monologue—Beaty portrays multiple characters, including Robeson's wife, "Essie," President Harry Truman and the voice of sensationalizing newspaper scribes and a paranoid J. Edgar Hoover. Beaty is at his best when immersed wholly in Robeson, a man of fire and passion. The quick-change, back-and-forth dialogue he does with Essie and the showdown with Truman are less effective.
A three-person band supports Beaty's able rendering of 14 tunes that personify not only Robeson's fight for justice but also the tenor of the times in the America in which Robeson lived. The latter is also explicitly depicted in John Narun's projection design, a highlight of the production.
If even one person sees The Tallest Tree in the Forest and then goes home, sits down and reads up on Robeson, Beaty's play will have served well the legacy of a man who enlightened as well as entertained, who stood up to bullies and bigots and who should receive more credit than he gets for rattling America's collective conscience and effecting change.
The Tallest Tree in the Forest runs through Nov. 3 at La Jolla Playhouse. $15 and up. lajollaplayhouse.org
An Evening with Will and the Witch: In a play written by UCSD doctoral student Will Given—about a 1920s-era film star and magician who travels through time—the audience becomes part of the action. Runs Oct. 24 through 27 in the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre at UCSD. theatre.ucsd.edu
Evil Dead the Musical: Yep, a musical sendup of the classic 1980s horror-movie franchise. Blood will be spattered, so protective ponchos will be offered to those in the first three rows. Presented by Theatre Alive, it runs Oct. 25 through Nov. 2 at 10th Avenue Theatre in East Village. theateralive.com
Light Falling Down: The world-premiere drama set in both 1940s Poland and modern-day California follows a woman and the young Jewish girl she finds in her garden, hiding from the Nazis. Presented by Oceanside Theatre Company, it runs Oct. 26 through Nov. 3 at The Brooks Theatre in Oceanside. oceansidetheatre.org
She-rantulas from Outer Space in 3D: A world-premiere comedy about an invading horde of mutant monsters and the small-town mom who learns a horrible truth about her little daughter Suzie. Opens Oct. 24 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights. diversionary.org
Suds: The Rockin' '60s Musical Soap Opera: The story of a young woman looking for love in a Laundromat frames a soundtrack of '60s hits. Opens Oct. 25 at Coronado Playhouse. coronadoplayhouse.com
A... My Name is Alice: SDSU students stage musical numbers, monologues and sketch comedy, all from a woman's perspective. Through Oct. 27 in SDSU's Experimental Theatre. theatre.sdsu.edu
The Few: This is a world premiere of a comedy about a small-town Idaho newspaper publisher who returns after four years to find that things have changed. Through Oct. 27 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. oldglobe.org
The Important of Being Earnest: Two guys, named Jack and Algernon, pretend to be named Earnest to win over a couple of ladies who've got a thing for the name. Oscar Wilde's funniest play, presented by Cygnet Theatre, runs through Oct. 27 at Old Town Theatre. cygnettheatre.org
Travesties: Aging Henry Carr recalls WWI-era Zurich, where he was acquainted with James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin and Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dadaism—and he does so by way of Oscar Wilde. Kooky? Well, that's Tom Stoppard for ya. Presented by Cygnet Theatre, it runs through Oct. 27 at the Old Town Theatre. cygnettheatre.com
Wait Until Dark: Three no-goodniks attempt to steal a doll secretly containing heroin from a too-clever blind woman. Through Oct. 27 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. newvillagearts.org
The Last Goodbye: Dig Jeff Buckley? How about Shakespeare? Get some of both from this modern take on Romeo and Juliet set to Buckley's music. Runs through Nov. 3 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
The Tallest Tree in the Forest: Daniel Beaty stars in his own one-man musical about the life of Paul Robeson, an early-20th-century football player, actor, singer and civil-rights activist who ended up getting blacklisted in the era of McCarthyism. Through Nov. 3 at La Jolla Playhouse. lajollaplayhouse.org
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity: Ion Theatre's political satire finds a TV-wrestling promoter casting a protagonist wrestler's young Indian-American protégé as a terrorist character called The Fundamentalist. Through Nov. 7 at BLKBOX Theatre in Hillcrest. iontheatre.com
Broken Glass: In Arthur Miller's play set in 1930s New York, a doctor believes a woman's paralysis is all in her head, and as he treats her, aspects of her marriage are revealed. Through Nov. 10 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. northcoastrep.org
Wit: An English professor dying from cancer reflects on her life during her final hours. Through Nov. 17 at Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado. lambsplayers.org
Crime Pays: A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net