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Paul Robeson, times two, speaks to L.A.

Two prominent theater productions are focusing on the actor-singer and political figure. The actors playing him, Keith David and Daniel Beaty, meet over a meal to talk about a man they've long admired.

April 19, 2014|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • Actors Daniel Beaty, left, and Keith David are playing Paul Robeson in separate L.A. productions.
Actors Daniel Beaty, left, and Keith David are playing Paul Robeson in separate… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

"What's my motivation?" is a standard laugh line satirizing the acting profession, a livelihood in which it's not always clear why one is doing what one needs to do.

At the moment, Daniel Beaty and Keith David may be the two American actors least likely to say it.

They are playing (and singing) the role of Paul Robeson in two separate plays on two separate Los Angeles stages. Their shared motivation is telling a story that is the ultimate retort to the idea that there's an unbridgeable gap between being a performer and living a serious life.

Beaty, 37, and David, 57, are a generation apart and have come at their careers in very different ways — Beaty so far devoted strictly to the stage and David invested in a career as diversified as a successful stock portfolio, with a broad array of roles on stage and screen while providing the trenchant narrative voice of many a PBS television documentary. 

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They're also taking different approaches to telling Robeson's life. Beaty opens Saturday at the Mark Taper Forum in "The Tallest Tree in the Forest," a one-actor show (plus three musicians) that he wrote for himself to inhabit not just Robeson, but some 40 other characters.

David is in the last two weekends of his run at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in Ebony Repertory Theatre's production of "Paul Robeson," a one-actor play (plus a pianist) from 1977 in which the late Phillip Hayes Dean's script gives almost all the lines to Robeson himself.

Robeson's achievement defies brief synopsis. Beaty's attempt at a pithy summation — "he was a superhero" — is not hyperbole.

At Rutgers University in the years before the Roaring Twenties Robeson was a two-time All American football end and his class' valedictorian. He moonlighted in the fledgling National Football League while earning his law degree at Columbia University but found his real calling on stages, movie screens and in concert halls around the world, including a long run as Othello on Broadway, starring roles in dramas by Eugene O'Neill and ownership of one of the greatest songs in the Broadway musical tradition, "Ol' Man River," from "Show Boat."

But Robeson made his biggest headlines as a civil rights activist who paid a huge price in the 1950s for refusing to criticize the Soviet Union as the Cold War came to a boil. Convinced it was a country, unlike America, where blacks could get a fair shake, he wouldn't buckle to pressure to condemn the Stalinist regime. 

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Vilified and stripped of his passport for eight years, Robeson saw his career collapse until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to ground a man for his political views.

Beaty and David both began delving into Robeson's work and life while they were in college. Each felt affronted that such a man, perhaps the most broadly accomplished American of the 20th century, was not emblazoned in the nation's collective consciousness. Each knew right away that he wanted to do something about that, and now here they are.

The two actors met for the first time recently for an interview at a restaurant in downtown L.A.

"When I began to find out the vastness of Robeson's contributions, I was actually very upset I had not learned about him in school, that he had not been mentioned in my growing up," said Beaty, who emerged from desperate circumstances in Dayton, Ohio, his father and older brother plagued by drug addiction, to become a classical voice student at Yale.

There he discovered recordings by Robeson and his black contemporary Roland Hayes, whose career as an opera star Beaty also has turned into a play, "Breath and Imagination."

David, who grew up in New York City, said he began delving into Robeson as a student at the Juilliard School in the 1970s, and attended Robeson's 1976 funeral at a church in Harlem. Seeking a copy of "Here I Stand," the star's 1958 book about race and civil rights, became an object lesson in what a political lighting rod Robeson was.

"I got quite vitriolic responses from two white-owned bookstores. They went, `I wouldn't have that book in here,'" David said, mimicking the huffed response. 

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In 1978, when James Earl Jones took the premiere production of "Paul Robeson" to Broadway after turbulent stops in other cities, David ran into another furor — this time over whether the play had defanged Robeson's political bite.

"I crossed picket lines" to see it, he recalled. Protests were sparked by a paid announcement in Variety in which 56 black artists and intellectuals complained that Dean's play was "a pernicious perversion of the essence of Paul Robeson" that had soft-pedaled his politics. Signers included Alvin Ailey, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott King and Paul Robeson Jr.

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