Richard, Peter, Valerie, and I saw this play at BAM on 3/22. It’s a one-man play with songs about Paul Robeson, written and performed by Daniel Beaty, directed by Moisés Kaufman. It was not good. I wouldn’t say it was bad, but it wasn’t good. Beaty gave a strong performance, sang well and put across the dignity of Robeson. He was especially good at delineating the different characters - - often there were two people in a scene (Robeson and his wife, for example) and he played both characters by changing his voice, his stance, his posture. That was well done. The most exciting scene in the play was his interrogation by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the play really sprang to life in that scene. I wonder if the dialogue was taken directly from the transcript.
The problem was the writing. Valerie hit the nail on the head with the word “pedestrian”. Or was it “pedestrian”? Yes, we know he know he had a hard life, we know he rose above it as best he could, but all that nobility is a bore. Richard said the story was interesting, and the historical context was rich in drama, but that doesn’t mean it’s theatrically viable. Peter said there’s an extra level of difficulty when you’re putting an actual person, a historical figure, on the stage. You have to choose what you’re going to include and what you’re going to leave out. Beaty didn’t do the best job with that. Robeson had a blind spot for the Soviet Union at the end of his career, he didn’t say anything against them, even though he knew about the horrible things Stalin was doing. Beaty was doing the same thing with Robeson: he mostly glossed over his negative qualities in favor of portraying him as a hero and a martyr.
A few other notes: the underscoring did not help. Piano, cello, and clarinet or flute - - every time I heard the flaccid sound of the flute all I could think of was a weeping sore. I will say this: brilliant use of sound design. Beaty was miked, but seemed to often speak or sing without any amplification. They used the mic in an artistic way, like when he was giving a review of a Robeson performance on the radio, his voice was crackly. Lots of little, thoughtful touches like that. But it’s pretty bad when you leave a show saying, “Wow, they really knew what they were doing with the sound design.”