Writer-performer Daniel Beaty

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The accomplished writer and performer discusses finding strength in a turbulent and painful childhood, which he writes about in his memoir, Transforming Pain to Power.

Playwright, actor, singer and composer Daniel Beaty has performed around the world, including at the White House, the Apollo and The Kennedy Center. His award-winning one-man play, Emergency, ran to sold-out audiences and toured internationally, and his new production on the life of Paul Robeson, The Tallest Tree in the Forest, is receiving critical acclaim. Beatty began writing and giving inspirational speeches in third grade and, by sixth grade, was speaking all over the U.S. He overcame a troubled childhood in Dayton, OH—which he chronicles in his book, Transforming Pain to Power—to graduate from Yale and earn his master's from the American Conservatory Theatre.


Tavis: Finding strength in a turbulent and painful childhood forms the basis for writer and performer Daniel Beaty’s newest tome. It’s called “Transforming Pain to Power,” which chronicles how he found inspiration in the kind of difficult circumstances that might undermine so many others’ lives.

That philosophy also led him to create a new play about one Paul Robeson, who paid a price for his activism, called “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” which is now at the Mark Taper Forum here in Los Angeles. Later in this program he’ll perform a piece from his “Transforming Pain to Power.” But first, let’s take a look at Daniel singing one of Robeson’s most famous songs, “Old Man River.”

[Film clip of Daniel Beaty performance]

Tavis: I’ll come to the text in just a second. Let me start with Robeson. I certainly get it. I think he’s one of the most unheralded, unappreciated –

Daniel Beaty: Yes.

Tavis: – undervalued – I could go on all night. But for you, why a piece about Paul Robeson?

Beaty: I believe Robeson epitomizes the artist activist, and during this time, when there’s such urgent issues facing us as a nation, as a human people, I think it’s really important to highlight the story of artists who really did take a stand.

Tavis: Yeah. He is the ultimate Renaissance man, I think. For those who don’t know what they ought to know about Paul Robeson, just run through some of the things they’re going to learn about Robeson in the play.

Beaty: Yeah, I call him a Black superhero. (Laughter)

Tavis: That’s exactly what he is, that’s a great – yeah.

Beaty: Exactly. It doesn’t even sound real when you tell the story of all the things that he did. He was born the son of a slave in 1898. He was the third Negro ever to graduate from Rutgers University.

Went on to Columbia Law School, was an all-American football player, Phi Beta Kappa scholar. Then after that got into singing and didn’t stop there. Made Hollywood films, had the longest-running production of a Shakespearean play on Broadway, “Othello.”

But what was really amazing about him is that he had such a huge platform, and he used that platform to talk about issues that he felt were urgent, ranging from the plight of Black people in this country to the plight of workers all over the world, and the African freedom movement.

Tavis: And paid a hellish price for it.

Beaty: Right, absolutely. He literally set down everything. There’s a line that I say in the play, he says, “No more singing pretty songs. I will use my voice for workers and my Negro people,” and that’s really the stand that he ultimately took.

Tavis: What’s happening at the time? Set the stage chronologically. What’s happening at the time that causes such a pushback on Robeson, given his humungous stature as an artist?

Beaty: Well Robeson, I believe, was really dangerous because he understood the link between race and class. When he went to Truman when there was a wave of lynch terror happening in this country and Truman was not willing to do anti-lynching legislation, he went to the streets and he went to the unions.

He got poor folks of all races, working folks of all races to unite together. That’s when he became really, really dangerous. It got to the point during the whole McCarthy era that he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

This man who was the most famous Black person in the world was all of a sudden deemed un-American, and as you could imagine, that took a real toll on his mind, his heart, and he was depressed for a period of time.

So as the play starts, his wife has brought him a stock of cotton to remind him of where he came from, remind him who his father was, to give him some strength as he goes before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

He asks this question: “How will they decide if I am un-American?” That leads him on a journey through his life.

Tavis: How does America, to the extent we can – and maybe we can’t – how do we pay the debt that we owe to Paul Robeson? He stood in his truth, he was willing to pay the price for it, but I’m wondering how it is all these years later that we do justice to him when we treated him so horribly.

Beaty: Absolutely. I think it begins with people knowing the story, and knowing the story in true complexity. To me, I was really upset when I first found out about him, when I’m a student of classical voice at Yale, listening to CDs of spirituals.

I’m like, “Who is this man with this incredible voice?” Never had heard about him in school, never had he been even talked about in my community. Then to see the breadth of what he can do.

So I think it starts with telling the story. Entertainment is the greatest socializing force in the world, and I’m doing what I can do at the Mark Taper Forum. But I would love to see a miniseries, a movie done about him. He really needs to be in the history books.

Tavis: I’m like you. When I was in high school, of course you don’t learn anything about Paul Robeson growing up in – I loved growing up in Indiana, but they didn’t teach me nothing about Paul Robeson.

Beaty: Right, exactly.

Tavis: So I get to college at Indiana University, it’s the first time – I’m in college the first time I ever hear the name Paul Robeson. I start reading a bit about this Robeson guy, Robeson guy.

Then I come to L.A. years later and I feel very fortunate and very blessed that in my lifetime I’ve gotten to be friend with both Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.

Beaty: Absolutely.

Tavis: I’m not doing that to drop names. I’m doing it because you can’t talk to Poitier more than five minutes without hearing about Paul Robeson.

Beaty: Absolutely.

Tavis: You can’t talk to Belafonte more than three minutes (laughter) without hearing about Paul Robeson.

Beaty: I would say three seconds.

Tavis: Maybe three seconds. (Laughter)

Beaty: Exactly, yeah.

Tavis: But both of them sat at the feet of Paul Robeson, and they will tell you they are not who they are without Paul Robeson.

Beaty: Absolutely. I actually speak about an experience with Mr. Poitier in my book, “Transforming Pain to Power.” I actually got to take a private tour of the America I Am exhibit with Mr. Poitier, and he was just so shocked to see himself featured a few times in that exhibit.

I stand on the shoulders of Harry Belafonte, of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, and of course of Paul Robeson. I’m just honored to be able to have experiences with people like that, and when they talk about their giants, that’s when you know this is somebody we need to pay attention to.

Tavis: You mentioned your book, and I mentioned it: “Transforming Pain to Power: Unlock Your Unlimited Potential.” What’s the message you want to get through, through this text?

Beaty: My father was a heroin addict and heroin dealer. He’s been in and out of prison 59 times throughout the course of my life. My older brother, addicted to crack cocaine.

I had a lot of images about who I could be in the world based on their experiences. But ultimately, I believe that our deepest pain is often the path to our highest purpose.

The very things that can take us out can actually be a platform for real contribution to the world. That’s really what the book is. It’s part my story and it’s part a roadmap.

Tavis: What’s the short answer – there’s a whole book here, of course – what’s the short answer for how you navigated through all that to become the artistic performer that you are today?

Beaty: Ultimately, I believe that personal healing is a path to social transformation. So you have to get present to what’s going on in your own life and in your own heart, but ultimately, the question becomes what about my story, what about my experience gives me something to give to other people, to empower other people.

Tavis: From his book “Transforming Pain to Power: Unlock Your Unlimited Potential,” by Daniel Beaty. He’s now going to perform for us a piece called “Run, Black Man, Run.” Paul Robeson it’s all yours, sir.

Beaty: Thank you.

[Begin live performance by Daniel Beaty]

Daniel Beaty: Sometimes late at night, when these projects get quiet, I come upstairs here to the roof of building B and I talk to my mind, try to be bigger than my fears.

You see, I’ve been told every action begins with a thought, and if you don’t watch what you’re thinking, your thoughts will get the best of you. It’s like the mind is an untrained child you got to teach what to do.

Because sometimes my mind, he tells me, “Psh, you will never be enough. Why even try? You know it’s going to be tough.” Look at where you live, broken hopes, broken dreams.

“At night you lie in bed and scream the silent scream of a bastard child without a father as a guide. There’s no daddy by your side, so you push your cries away and you spill that space with rage – a rage that keeps you caged in a cycle that never ends.

“You ain’t going to be no better than the man who fathered you – able to create life, but not to follow through. Your daddy left, so you will too. The sins of the father will visit the son. When life gets tough, the abandoned run.”

Those are the thoughts my mind, he says to me, trying to choke out any type of hope or possibility. And that’s why I stand here on the roof of building B and talk back to my mind.

“All right, I’ve heard enough. I know my path is rough, but my mama, she was there, and she helped me to repair. A father she was not, but still, she gave me a lot.

“And I have a mentor too, and he helps me make it through. Say what you want, but there’s nothing I can’t do, because I define my destiny. I won’t let doubt get the best of me.

“I will father myself and my children will see a Black man stays. This can be just a phase, this cycle can end. It all depends on where we go from here. You say when life gets tough, the abandoned run.

“Well I say run, Black man, run; run to your children. Hold them tight. Help them make it through the night. Be more than you think you can. Be a man and take a stand.

“And when you make it through, reach back and help another person do what we all know must be done. Run, Black man, run. A fatherless child I may be, but I decide who I choose to be. Run, Black man, run, run, Black man, run, run, Black man, run.”

[End live performance by Daniel Beaty]


Tavis: Man. That is Daniel Beaty, now performing in his show “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” at the Mark Taper Forum here in L.A., if you can get in to see it. His latest text is called “Transforming Pain to Power: Unlock Your Unlimited Potential.” In case you just tuned in, the piece he just performed is called “Run, Black Man, Run.” Daniel, good to have you on this program.

Beaty: Thank you, Tavis, appreciate it.

Tavis: Congratulations on all your success.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: June 3, 2014 at 2:39 pm