Paul Robeson, center, leads workers at an Oakland shipyard in a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" in 1942. Robeson is the subject of two different plays that will run at nearly the same time in Los Angeles next spring. (World Wide Photos)
Paul Robeson was one of the most widely accomplished Americans who ever lived -- All-American football player, lawyer, concert singer and recording artist, star actor on stage and screen in both dramas and musicals, and lightning-rod political activist.
But can even as magnetic a figure as Robeson be a strong box office draw on two different L.A. stages at nearly the same time?
The answer will come next spring, when theater-goers will have their pick of two one-actor plays about Robeson: Ebony Repertory Theatre’s production of Phillip Hayes Dean’s “Paul Robeson,” starring Keith David from March 12-30, followed closely by “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” written and performed by Daniel Beaty, at the Mark Taper Forum April 15-May 25.
Center Theatre Group announced the Taper’s 2014 season in August, including “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” so Ebony Repertory’s announcement Friday of another Robeson play was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.
A company with modest resources for marketing, but 400 seats at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center to fill, will be competing for attention and sales with an organization that by some measures is the mightiest nonprofit theater company in the United States.
Generally speaking, that made this coming March perhaps not the most propitious moment to be mounting “Paul Robeson,” acknowledges Wren T. Brown, Ebony Repertory’s founder and producer.
But he said in a recent interview that there’s a very good reason for scheduling it then, despite the competition from the Taper: He has been waiting more than five years to do this play with these people, and it’s essentially now or never.
Even before Ebony Repertory debuted five years ago, he said, the company dreamed of mounting “Paul Robeson” with David starring and playwright Dean directing. Both quickly agreed to do it when approached in May 2008.
But that was contingent on their schedules meshing. David,seen last spring in the Taper’s revival of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” is extremely busy as a stage, screen and voice-over actor, and that made it difficult for him to slot in a time to do “Paul Robeson.”
The timing finally worked out for March 2014, and producer Brown says he wasn’t about to let a competing Paul Robeson play deter him.
David has a regular part as a tough Army sergeant in “Enlisted,” a Fox television comedy about a stateside military unit that’s scheduled to debut in January. With early episodes already shot and a production hiatus in early 2014, Brown said, he was free to do “Paul Robeson.”
Brown wasn’t about to wait any longer, knowing that if the TV show gets picked up for more episodes, David could be AWOL from stage acting for quite some time.
Now the theater producer is rooting for “Enlisted” to be a big hit, which might bring some TV fans out to see David in mufti. “That would be a perfect storm,” Brown said.
Center Theatre Group’s Michael Ritchie was not immediately available to comment about the prospect of two competing Paul Robeson plays.
CTG and Ebony Repertory were allies last year when Ebony’s 2011 Phylicia Rashad-directed production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” was remounted at the Kirk Douglas Theatre to run in crosstown tandem with the Taper's staging of “Clybourne Park,” Bruce Norris’ sequel to “Raisin.”
“Paul Robeson” premiered in 1977, the year after Robeson's death, and had Broadway runs in 1978, 1988 and 1995, starring James Earl Jones the first time and Avery Brooks in the later stagings. It’s essentially a Robeson monologue with songs. The accompaniment is a piano player who also speaks some lines -- a part not yet cast in the Ebony Repertory production.
“The Tallest Tree in the Forest” is a new play with singing, performed by Beaty and a three-piece band and directed by Moises Kaufman. It has been staged this year at Kansas City Repertory and the La Jolla Playhouse, with a run scheduled early next year at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., before it reaches the Taper.
Beaty is known for one-man plays in which he performs dozens of roles. The Geffen Playhouse staged his “Through the Night” in 2010 and “Emergency” in 2008 -- the latter arriving after Beaty had won 2007 Obie Awards for his writing and acting in its 2006 premiere at New York’s Public Theater.
While Robeson will be Beaty’s primary character in “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” he’ll again be inhabiting multiple roles, among them Robeson’s nemesis, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
At Ebony Repertory, Brown said, “Paul Robeson” continues the company’s strategy of following a list of 20 plays that its founding artistic director, Israel Hicks, had laid out when it began in 2008.
Hicks was 66 when he died of prostate cancer in 2010 -- a year after he’d become the first director to stage all 10 plays in the August Wilson cycle about the 20th century African American experience at a single theater, the Denver Center Theatre Company.
Brown said he’s continuing to work through Hicks' play list, although from the start the understanding was to work in attractive newer titles as opportunities arose. But with a budget that currently permits just two major productions a year, getting through the list could take some time.