Daniel Beaty: Growing Tall Among the Trees
Learn more about an award-winning playwright, artist, activist, and author Daniel Beaty, who is currently performing at the Arena Stage.
It is rare to find in one man all the characteristics that embody the definition of performing acts. However, Daniel Beaty is our modern day one man show. His latest return to the Arena Stage chronicles the controversial life and career of legendary African-American performer Paul Robeson. This particular act portrays over 40 characters, and while it’s a formidable challenge Beaty performs with such ease and grace that captivates the audience through his charismatic voice. Currently performing The Tallest Tree in the Forest, Daniel took some time from his hectic schedule to answer some of our questions.
It’s interesting that you are performing in The Tallest Tree in the Forest, a play based on the life of Paul Robeson. According to Wikipedia, you were granted a production of another play on the life of Paul Roberson during your undergrad, The Yale Cabaret. Would you say that Paul Roberson is a mentor of yours? What is it about his character that inspires you?
Paul Robeson epitomizes the artist/activist. He understands the connections between race and class struggles, and the need for those who are disenfranchised across a myriad of platforms to join forces. He was also a remarkable artist with a singular voice and passion. I am inspired by the breadth and depth of his talents and his commitment to not only move people as an artist, but also his determination to use his platform as a celebrity to advocate for issues he felt were urgent.
If he were alive today, what social issues do you see him advocating?
I believe Robeson would be advocating around the impact of mass incarceration, the state of young people in our urban centers, and a living wage for all people across race. These are issues that are also very important to me and are core to my advocacy work. Robeson spoke in the 1940s and 1950s about the challenges of such a small percentage of our nation having the majority of the wealth. Those discrepancies have become even more extreme and I believe he would definitely be advocating for reform.
Your plays inspire cultural and social change. It’s clear you believe in artistic activism. Which social issues do you support? With which non-profits do you collaborate?
The issues that are most important to me center around our young people in our urban centers and, in particular, how our education system is failing them, and the impact of mass incarceration on children and families. My father has been incarcerated 59 times over the course of my life. Both my father and brother have dealt with issues of incarceration and addiction. I experienced first-hand the trauma and issues of esteem that emerge. It is important to me that we work both to empower young people from challenging homes to heal and know their true strength, as well as work on systemic change to increase their odds at healthy, nurturing homes.
What roles would you most like to play?
I would love for Shonda Rhimes to cast me as a lead in one of her series. I’ve been seriously considering starting a campaign… a smile. I think her work is brilliant, entertaining, and affirming in unique and powerful ways.
What are some of your favorite plays that you’ve seen?
My “brother from another mother” is the up-and-coming playwright Marcus Gardley. We read and support each other’s work. I love the epic scope, power, and poetry of his plays. In particular, I am looking forward to one of his plays this season called The House That Would Not Stand.
What do you enjoy the most while you are in Washington, D.C.?
Washington D.C. is one of my favorite cities, and I’m not just saying that because you’re interviewing me. Not only do I find the city beautiful, but I also love seeing the lights on the monuments at night, walking the streets of Georgetown. But I am also inspired that so many big moments that have defined our nation and our world have taken place here and continue to take place every day.
What new projects can we look forward to in 2014?
I have various plays that are in the works, but I am most excited about my book Transforming Pain to Power that is being published by Berkeley (a division of Penguin Random House) on March 4th, 2014. This book talks about my journey from a household that was impacted by addiction and incarceration, to my studies at Yale, to my current career. The book is part memoir, part poetry, and part exercises that have been a core part of my healing. I also have been using this work with young people and adults for about a decade and received some funding from the Kellogg and Ford Foundations to launch a community initiative using these tools. The goal of the book and the community initiative is to empower people to heal trauma and manifest new dreams through the tools of storytelling and the arts.