The Kansas City Repertory Theatre launches its new season this week with a history lesson wrapped inside a musical. Called The Tallest Tree in the Forest, it examines both the contributions and controversies of Paul Robeson, who at the height of his acting and musical career was perhaps the most famous African-American man in the world.
For the last several years, KC Rep has been as devoted to new work as it has been reviving the classics upon which it built its reputation. Tony Award-nominated director Moises Kaufman, who staged the Rep's Into the Woods in 2009, is back in Kansas City to direct the premiere of The Tallest Tree in the Forest and says his return to the Rep is because of its focus on nurturing and developing new work.
A new work ethic
“Since (Artistic Director) Eric Rosen took over, the Rep has become one of the places artists all over America think of as a place where they can come and develop work,” Kaufman says. “When you're developing a new piece, it's always very frightening (and) you're always discovering things so you need an artistic director who understands what it means to develop new work.
“It's a different set of skills. An artistic director who doesn't specialize in developing new work would come to a rehearsal expecting results. Eric comes to a rehearsal expecting questions. Kansas City Rep has become a very good place to develop new work and I think in both New York and L.A., artists know about this.”
The artist and the activist
The Tallest Tree in the Forest is the latest new work finding at The Rep a safe haven in which to come to life. The show tells the story of Paul Robeson, the African-American singer and actor whose outspokenness about fascism, communism, and civil rights during and just after World War Two profoundly sidetracked his career. Its creator and star Daniel Beaty discovered Robeson's work during his vocal training at Yale University and explains his intentions with the piece.
“I am endeavoring to show this man in as much complexity and dimensionality as possible,” Beaty says at a recent rehearsal. “So I didn’t feel I could focus on just his artistic career, or just focus on his activism, focus on him as a singer. He did so many different things.
“I have endeavored in this play to delve into many different aspects of his character and to allow all of those aspects to work together to allow the audience to develop a really dimensional understanding of who this human being was.”
The artist versus the activist
After the war, says Moises Kaufman, Robeson was openly perplexed about how African-Americans could go overseas and fight for the United States only to return to a country where lynchings and cross-burnings weren't uncommon.
“Robeson realized that he could continue being a great artist or he could speak for the well-being of his people, and at that moment those two were mutually exclusive and he had to make the decision,” Kaufman says.
“He decided he was going to stop being an artist and become an activist, (saying’ ‘I will no longer sing pretty songs. If I open my mouth, it will be to sing songs of revolt, songs of the people, songs of my people.’ “So I think it poses a real question, not just for artists, for every human being. We are every day making decisions about the destiny of our lives. And the way he made his choice poses questions for all of us.”
Restoring the legacy
Because Robeson was blacklisted in the 1950's, the man and his legacy were virtually erased from history. Daniel Beaty says it’s part of his mission with the show to return to Robeson a place of honor and reverence.
“I believe that for both younger generations and older generations that Paul Robeson has a vital story to tell,” Beaty says.
“People can have varying opinions about his politics but I think it would be hard for someone to say that the myriad of contributions he made are not worthy of being included in the social discourse: what he did in speaking for the rights of people of color – black people, people of color all over the world - as well as speaking for the rights of workers and the link he made between race and class. It still has vital resonance for our society today.“
Though Kaufman says he believes theater has a higher purpose than to merely educate and inform, he does hope the show communicates that the spark of humanity resides in the mixture of our weakness and our greatness.
The Tallest Tree in the Forest, August 30-September 28, Kansas City Repertory Theatre's Copaken Stage, 1 H & R Block Way (corner of 13th and Walnut Streets), Kansas City, Mo. 816-235-2700.
The “Artists in Their Own Words” series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.