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Study Guide

The Tallest Tree in the Forest

The Story | Subjects | Creators | Art Forms | Enrichment Activities


As the production begins, we are introduced to Paul Robeson singing his signature song, “Ol’ Man River,” from the musical Show Boat. This image is only a flashback to an earlier time of youth and strength, however. Robeson quickly becomes a 77-year-old man, narrating and commenting on his life.

Born in New Jersey on April 9, 1898, Paul Robeson showed incredible talent and intelligence throughout his youth, graduating as the valedictorian of Rutgers University in 1919. However, it was Robeson’s undeniable gift as a vocalist and actor that propelled him to the very top of the entertainment industry, becoming the most famous African-American artist of his time.

During the height of his fame, Robeson saw he could lend his celebrity to support oppressed communities. This lifelong devotion to social justice would eventually complicate his stardom and lead to the downfall of his professional success.

With the support of his wife and business manager Eslanda (Essie) Cordozo Goode, Robeson traveled the world giving concerts, performing in plays (Othello, Show Boat) and starring in movies (Sanders of the River), but always with political controversy hot on his heels. From his attempts to get President Truman to pass anti-lynching laws in the 1940s to his advocacy for the Soviet Union—due in large part to the nation’s perceived embrace of racial equality—Robeson spent most of his career closely monitored by J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

The HUAC had been a major force in American life since it was formed in Congress in 1938. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy began his reckless campaign to purge the US government of perceived communist infiltration. This period came to be called the “Red Scare” in the United States (red being the Communist party’s color). Though HUAC didn’t subpoena Robeson until 1956, he spent most of the previous decade battling cancelled performances and his increasingly negative image in American society and government.

When the US government revoked Robeson’s passport in 1950, it virtually obliterated him from the world stage he once dominated. The Tallest Tree in the Forest ends as we cycle back to the 77-year-old Paul from the play’s beginning, who is clearly proud to have remained true to his ideas of justice; regardless of what the government may have done to his career, it’s clear it didn’t kill his spirit.