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On My Mind: Daniel Beaty

Daniel Beaty

“As a singer, an actor, a novelist, even an activist, it’s always for the same purpose: to inspire people to transform pain into power.”

DANIEL BEATY, 37

Activist, actor, singer and writer

When Daniel Beaty was in third grade, his teacher played Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech for his class. He told her, “ I want to do that. I want to write speeches like Dr. King.”

So his teacher, Mavis Jackson, helped him write his first speech and contacted service organizations around the country so the young boy could perform his work for them.

He’s now a playwright with a national reputation, and his new play, “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” opens Friday at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s Copaken Stage. The play is centered around the life of artist and civil rights activist Paul Robeson.

“He’s a figure who’s always inspired me and intrigued me,” Beaty says. “He epitomizes the artist-activist. He used his voice as an artist not only for creativity but to speak about a lot of causes that really mattered to him concerning issues of race, issues of workers, issues of war and safety for people.”

When Robeson performed in Kansas City in 1942, he received assurances from the Municipal Auditorium that he would not perform in front of a segregated crowd. He was deceived by the organizers.

“So many years later, what I would love to have happen with ‘The Tallest Tree’ is that all types of people from different races, different ages, different interests come to the theater and hear the story of this man who was a voice for so many different types of people.”

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Roots: “My father was actually arrested 58 times through the course of my life. And then I have an older brother who’s also dealt with incarceration. And in my journey to understand their experiences, I realized that it was part of larger social issues: the need for prison reform, the breakdown of the family, historical racial inequities that have not really been addressed.”

An education: “Teachers are heroes to me. In the space of the chaos that was my home, with my father and brother’s incarceration and addiction, my mother was really working to provide and to just keep the home in some modicum of safety. And so my teachers really stepped in and caused me to feel special and that there was something of value in me.”

Returning: “Kansas City actually has a special place in my heart because in 1994, I was a senior in high school, and I came to the national championships for the National Forensics League, and I won the national championship for dramatic interpretation here.”

The artist-activist: “Artists have a unique role to play. We understand story. We understand emotion. A lot of times I think conversations stay too much in the realm of thought. And I believe the greatest impact happens when thought and emotion dance together.”

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