Artist OR Activist?

Daniel Beaty Photo Credit: Max Gordon

Daniel Beaty
Photo Credit: Max Gordon


I confess, I had no idea who Paul Robeson was and wanted to go to THE TALLEST TREE IN THE FOREST because I had never seen anything staged by Moises Kaufman. Like any good Culturebot writer, I did some half assed research during my day job hours, noted the terms “football”, “acting”, “singing” and “activism” and went along my merry way to BAM for this new show by Daniel Beaty and Tectonic Theatre Project.

So, what is Paul Robeson remembered for?


What should he be remembered for?

His stance on colonialism and African American Rights.

Or his stand against the HUAC.

…you know what, just watch this.

I’ll let you do your own research, because I don’t want to talk about how McCarthyism really screwed a generation of artists, or go off on a rant about America’s class and race issues.

TALLEST MAN is a celebration of a man who crossed the line between artist and activist. Following his story from the beginning, from growing up with a former slave father, to his meteoric and intellectual rise, to his currently forgotten legacy, the creators show us the twists and turns that his life took. A montage towards the middle of the play highlights his jump from artist/activist to solely an activist. With a quick line about “never acting in movies or on the stage again”, Robeson begins to devote his life and work to causes such as workers’ rights and ending lynching in the US. Much hangs in that statement, a statement that he followed through with and a statement that I have been asking myself since seeing the show.

Can I be both an artist and an activist at the same time?

I mean, yes I can.

But do I favor one over the other? Am I using my talents for the greater good? Or am I making work that I want to make, in the way that I want to make it, and simply tricking myself into believing that it could also be active activism?

In the spirit of complete honesty, I didn’t go to the “Justice for All” march this past December because I had rehearsal. I don’t use my facebook to voice my thoughts about the world around me because it’s “professional”.  And while I might support from a distance, I never give money to protests, causes or the like.

Instead I make theatre, I see theatre and I complain about it with this small, insular community that tends to look and spend a lot like me.

So, Robeson stopped making theatre and film. He stopped performing in roles and devoted his life and voice to causes. He used his celebrity status to get his voice heard and eventually paid for it in a very public way.

Maybe I’m just in one of those terrible periods where I question the “why’s” of this career. Where the bigger picture, the reflecting on society and asking it to actively change has been lost in the shuffle of trying to make it. Maybe I’m actually not an activist and should stop claiming that title. Or hell, maybe I’m not even an artist and I should just devote myself full time to trying more direct methods of active change. Or maybe I’ll just wait until I get really famous and rich and then start my own “save the whales” campaign.

I guess the question I’m asking myself is, even with my own currently cynical views of theatre, would I give it up to pursue something that might have a greater societal outcome?

Robeson did.

And his story has been mostly forgotten.

Except in this solo show, Beaty lets Robeson’s story shine. Beaty lends his own voice and story to the forgotten legacy of a man who decided that the stage wasn’t enough, who embarked on campaigns for workers rights and against lynching. Who realized that he could use his platform for a larger cause, and that maybe performing roles other than Robeson the activist was getting in the way of the message. Being the first Black man to play OTHELLO on Broadway didn’t do enough, but using the recognizable voice to take a risk and speak out, maybe that would actually incite some change.

Do true artists/activists ever really exist? Or are we forced to pick one or the other?


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