Until I saw “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” I knew nothing about Paul Robeson and we should all know about him. Long forgotten, he was an early civil rights pioneer and activist. The play presented his astounding and complicated history in ninety minutes. A one man show by Daniel Beatty tells the story of Robeson’s rise as a singer, most famously he sang Ol’ Man River in Showboat, to his becoming a vocal activist for civil rights and social justice.
This is a very short summary of his life. It is way more involved than this and I encourage you to go to the wiki link or here. The title, “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” comes from a quote by Mary McLeod Bethune who said Robeson was “the tallest tree in our forest.”
Robeson attended college at Rutgers, being both valedictorian and star football player. He got a law degree from Columbia but because of discrimination, he was unable to find work. He then discovered that he could make money singing. He came to the attention of the playwright Eugene O’Neill who wanted him to star in his plays, “All God’s Chillum Have Wings” and “The Emperor Jones.” He was a huge success and then landed a role in a broadway show, Showboat, which he starred in for many years in England and the U.S.. Despite many who criticized his role as a slave as demeaning, he kept on because it gave him freedom and because he felt that he played the character in a way that created sympathy for the plight of slaves. I am not sure that is true but he was so successful that he was able to produce and star on Broadway in Othello. He was the first black man to play Othello, in a show he produced himself. By then he was probably the most famous black man of his time.
But while he was a famous entertainer, he was also an activist for economic justice and civil rights. He sought anti-lynching legislation in one of the first civil rights efforts, but President Truman turned him down.
He argued over freedom for Africa, for Australian aborigines, for poor, mistreated Welsh miners. His strong views on society and justice also brought him trouble. After he visited the Soviet Union and gave them glowing reviews as an equal society, he was branded a communist sympathizer. He ended up on Hoover’s black list, and was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee which he denounced in public. Robeson accused them, “YOU are the un-Americans!” When asked why he did not go and live in the Soviet Union, Robeson thundered: “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country and I am going to stand here and have a part of it just like you.”
Then Robeson made speech that was the beginning of the end. He was so angry at the discrimination in the U.S., that he said African-Americans should not go to war on behalf of the U.S. because of the way they were treated. People started to distance themselves from him. At some point a civil rights leader said, the tallest tree in our forest needs to be cut down. When he refused to also denounce Joseph Stalin for his own extermination of Jews and pretty much everyone who disagreed with him, Robeson was abandoned even by liberals.
For much of his popular life, he had lived and made his living in Europe and when his passport was revoked because of his Soviet sympathies, his life started to spin out of control. He became ill and lost favor with just about everyone. He eventually died a forgotten and under-appreciated activist who is only now being rediscovered.
The play told me all of this. It was a wonderful, moving and sad story about a man who should not be forgotten.