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Study Guide

The Tallest Tree in the Forest


Paul Robeson (1898—1976) Robeson was a major performer and activist in the first half of the 20th century. He became famous for playing Joe in the London production of the Broadway musical Show Boat. Paul Robeson would go on to become the first African-American actor to play the title role in Othello on Broadway, as well as having great success as a concert performer in Europe and the United States. Robeson fought for social justice and racial equality, lending his legendary voice to unions, and racial and religious minorities.

Eslanda Cordozo Goode (Essie) (1895—1965) Essie met Paul Robeson while she was the head histological chemist in the Surgical Pathological Laboratory at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Essie was of Spanish, Jewish, and African-American descent, and was the first such person to achieve such a distinguished appointment. Shortly after marrying Robeson, however, Essie became his business manager and gave up her career. Essie would do intense research and conduct anthropological studies while traveling with Paul all over the world.


Eugene O’Neill (mentioned, not performed) (1888—1953) Eugene O’Neill is a major American playwright who authored two plays that Paul Robeson starred in, The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun’ Got Wings. Both plays dealt with race relations in a way that was considered controversial. The Emperor Jones is about an African-American convict who makes himself Emperor of a Caribbean Island to escape prison; All God’s Chillun’ Got Wings is about a dysfunctional interracial marriage.


Oscar Hammerstein II (mentioned, not performed) (1895—1960)- Hammerstein was a major lyricist who created, with his writing partner Richard Rodgers, legendary Broadway musicals like Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Before teaming up with Rodgers, however, Hammerstein provided the lyrics to Show Boat, a musical that includes the song “Ol’ Man River,” Robeson’s biggest hit.


J. (John) Edgar Hoover (1895—1972) J. Edgar Hoover was the Director of the FBI for 48 years. He began his leadership in 1924 when he was only 29 years old. Known for his strict policies, J. Edgar Hoover led the Bureau through its attacks against gangsters in the 1930s, Nazism in the 1940s, and, as we discover in The Tallest Tree ... , Communism in the 1950’s. Hoover’s legacy, while respected, has been questioned for his methods of obtaining the information he deemed essential to maintain security.

President Harry S. Truman (1884—1972) Harry S. Truman was the 33rd President of the United States of America. Truman served from 1945 to 1953. Originally elected as the Vice President to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman assumed the office when Roosevelt died in April 1945, early in his fourth term as president. Truman is perhaps best remembered for ordering atomic bombs dropped on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after Japan refused to surrender during World War II.

Itzik Feffer (1900—1952) Itzik Feffer was a Soviet Jewish poet and a personal friend of the Paul Robeson. Feffer’s work was mostly written in Yiddish and like many other Jewish cultural voices in the Soviet Union, Feffer was monitored by Stalin’s Secret Police. Feffer was killed during one of Stalin’s pogroms, becoming one of over 400 Jewish artists who lost their lives in the Soviet Union between 1949 and 1952.


Othello (London: 1930; Broadway: 1943—1944, 1945) Shakespeare’s Othello tells the story of an army general in Venice who becomes entangled in a plot of jealousy after a trusted friend offers him false claims of his wife’s adultery. Described by the playwright as a Moor—which was once understood to mean a person of African Muslim descent—Othello had never been portrayed by a black man on Broadway until Robeson’s debut in the role.


Show Boat (London: 1928; Broadway: 1932) Show Boat is one of the first musicals to incorporate content-driven songs and dances into a linear plot, making way for what we now understand to be the standard for musical theater. The show is about a family operating a show boat on the Mississippi River. Things become complicated when the daughter of the family decides to go into show business and the Boat’s most famous star is discovered as bi-racial.


Sanders of the River (1935, directed by Zoltan Korda) Set in Nigeria in the 1930s, Sanders, a British officer, struggles with ruling over the different African tribes of the area. When Sanders returns to England, internal fighting, chaos, and lies uproot the district. As we learn in The Tallest Tree ... , Robeson hoped this film would help to alter the perception of African people for the mainly white audiences. Unfortunately, this film is largely regarded as a piece of British propaganda advocating for imperialism.