All the Way
A Modern Sequel to Shakespearean Histories
By Robert Schenkkan
Fichandler Stage, Arena Stage, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, April 6, 2016, A–102&103 (front row corner, theater in the round)
Directed by Kyle Donnelly
President Lyndon Johnson (Jack Willis) talks with Martin Luther King Jr. (Bowman Wright) about the Civil Rights Act bottled up in a congressional committee in Robert Schenkkan's All the Way at Arena Stage. Though a champion of civil rights, Johnson had a testy relationship with King. Photo by Stan Barouh, Arena Stage.
This was supposed to be a night off—I didn't even have a notebook with me. We were at Washington's Arena Stage to see Robert Schenkkan's brilliant play All the Way featuring Jack Willis as Lyndon Baines Johnson, the actor who originated the role at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where we first saw it in 2012. We saw that production again but with a different cast two years ago on Broadway, where Schenkkan won a Tony for Best Play and Bryan Cranston won a Tony for playing LBJ. We didn't like Cranston's performance (or many of the others in the New York cast, either), but we so love the play and so admired Willis's performance that we decided to take in the Arena Stage production as part of our baseball Opening Day vacation.
And here I am, writing a review. For one thing, this production, under Kyle Donnelly's direction and performed in the round (or, more accurately, in the oval), is a different staging than the original and merits comment. For another, the cast—all new to the play except Willis—is exemplary and merits public kudos. And finally, this play in and of itself merits as much attention (and as frequent attendance) as any William Shakespeare work. Especially today.
All the Way covers LBJ's first year as president of the United States. It opens with his return to Washington, D.C., from Dallas after John F. Kennedy's assassination and ends with his landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. The first half of the play focuses on passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which Johnson bullied through Congress and signed into law. The second half focuses on the integration of the Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention, which Johnson masterfully handled through political negotiation, deals, and some tough love.
Naturally, this history resonates today in so many ways, not the least of which is the tectonic shift the two major political parties made in 1964. Because of Johnson, the Democratic Party came to monopolize the black vote, which had traditionally been Republican, but lost the South, the party's bedrock. Instead of celebrating his overwhelming victory in the general election, LBJ offers sober prescience to his new vice president, Hubert Humphrey. "Count the votes, Hubert. [Goldwater] won five Southern states, including Georgia. Hell, Georgia has never voted Republican, not even during Reconstruction! Time was, we could win in the South with farm supports and government programs for poor people, but not this time, no, this time they voted against their own f*****g interest so they could wave the bloody flag and shout n****r, n****r, n****r! And Goldwater was f*****g crazy. Wait 'til the party of Lincoln gets some slick, sweet-smiling candidate. Somebody a little more presentable." This passage drew a knowing laugh from the D.C. audience.
More than the geographic landscape changed in that election, however. Both parties had liberal and conservative wings. Johnson uses this fact as part of his maneuvering on the Civil Rights bill. "I got to throw Humphrey and the rest of those liberals a little bit of red meat now and again," he tells Richard Russell as a guise to keep the Southern senator from derailing the bill at the outset. Johnson later coerces Republican Senator Everett Dirksen to break a filibuster on the bill. Along with the fissures developing in the Democratic Party at its 1964 convention, the conservative wing of the Republican Party steamrolled the liberals at its convention: both events laid the groundwork for the mostly homogenous makeup of the two parties today. All the Way depicts a time when people coalesced over issues and policies in order to get things done. It's a nostalgic look back for those of us tired of substance-light politicians and a political system mired in the two parties' drive for unilateral political power, not only not getting things done but refusing to carry out Constitutional responsibilities for the sole purpose of political posturing.
Though All the Way is a lesson in and of history, it is not a history lesson. It is theatrical drama on a Shakespearean scale. When he wrote his history plays, Shakespeare evoked such household names for his Elizabethan audiences as Kings Henry IV, V, VI, and Richard III, Joan of Arc, John of Gaunt, Margaret of Anjou, the "kingmaker" Earl of Warwick, and the Percys. Schenkkan, in his turn, evokes Martin Luther King Jr., LBJ, George Wallace, Hubert Humphrey, Lady Bird Johnson, president blackmailer J. Edgar Hoover, and the Kennedys. Instead of the Yorks and Lancasters you have the Democrats and Republicans, with a bit less blood spilled—maybe (Johnson does refer to politics as a knife fight). As I write this we are currently in New York to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's King and Country: Shakespeare's Great Cycle of Kings production of Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two, and Henry V. In a way, All the Way is the next sequel.
I can't help drawing a parallel between the opening scene of Richard III, as the titular Duke of Gloucester lays his plot and then begins manipulating members of the court coming in and out of the scene, with the opening sequence of All the Way. Seguing from Air Force One's landing in Washington through Johnson's first address to Congress, in which he announces his intent to pass a civil rights law, we then see the president in the Oval Office, beginning his manipulation of political figures—from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham—who come in and out of the scene, mostly via phone calls.
Shakespeare matured from the episodic format of the Henry VI plays into the personality-driven Richard III, a style he perfected in his second historical cycle portraying Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke, Hotspur, Falstaff, and Prince Hal, later Henry V. Schenkkan maintains an episodic format through All the Way, a rapid-pace but fluid dramatic timeline. However, his sharp pen—even in his quick-snippet scenes—focuses on the vivid personalities of the characters, from Russell's Southern dignity to Wallace's pugilistic tendencies, from Hoover's morality-driven ego as he tries to topple King to Bob Moses's justice-driven intensity as he directs the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter drive which led to the deaths of three volunteers.
All the Way especially focuses on the two figures at the center of the American political world in 1964, LBJ and MLK. At least one of the two is on stage in all but a couple of scenes, and the one who is not on stage is very much on the minds of the characters who are on the stage. Johnson and King were larger-than-life figures then as they are now, but Schenkkan does not portray them as statues or even icons: they are humans, and Willis and, in this production, Bowman Wright play them that way.
Willis's LBJ is, essentially, scared. He calls himself the accidental president, moves through scenes with nervous energy, and is constantly looking over his shoulder at the specter of Bobby Kennedy (who does not appear as a character in the play). Yet, he's cool and confident as he interacts with supporters and opponents alike. We see the real man in direct addresses to the audience, and Willis bores into us individually with eyes full of LBJ intensity. During these soliloquies he reveals his true feelings about poverty from his own upbringing and racism from his experience as a first grade teacher for eager Mexican immigrants who eventually gave up learning in the face of extreme prejudice outside his classroom. We also see the vulnerable Johnson come out in his intimate scenes with Lady Bird and Walter Jenkins, his closest aide. In these moments he reveals his insecurities borne of an intense need to be liked, his gnawing feeling of inferiority propagated by the attitudes of the Kennedy clan and Harvard elites, and his realization that the field he works in, politics, ultimately leaves you gutted as even your closest allies will betray you to ride their own power curve.
Wright comes to his portrayal of King with the experience of having played the civil rights leader in the Arena Stage production of The Mountaintop, Katori Hall's fictional account of King's last night on earth in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. With this experience comes an understanding that King's public and private personas were entirely different. The only iconic King we see comes during his eulogy at the funeral for James Chaney, one of the murdered volunteers in the Mississippi Freedom Summer—and even in that moment he gets shouted down by more militant voices. King gets no soliloquies in this play, but in his private scenes with his wife, Coretta (and with a white mistress in a hotel room), with his fellow civil rights leaders, and even with Johnson, Wright plays King with a politician's wariness, a man uncertain of his footing but determined to hew to big-picture outcomes. He supports Johnson's tinkering with the Civil Rights bill because he buys into the president's planned war on poverty; he compromises on the Mississippi delegation issue to the disgust of his followers because he understands that the conjuncture of political tides and funding streams matter more in the long run than a symbolic victory. The price, though, is his credibility.
As much as we were long looking forward to seeing this play again, we walked with trepidation into the Fichandler, a 680-seat-capacity theater in the round that has given us fits in the past with poor sightlines and troublesome acoustics. Furthermore, All the Way is written as a proscenium arch play, with the secondary characters seated in the back while waiting to act their parts (or talk on the phone where they sit) and a bank of TV screens showing news events, vote tallies, and countdown to elections.
LBJ (Jack Willis, right) warns Richard Russell (Lawrence Redmond) about getting the Civil Rights Act passed, "I love you more'n my own daddy, but if you get in my way, I'll crush you," in Robert Schenkkan's All the Way at Arena Stage. Photo by Stan Barouh, Arena Stage.
Perhaps aided by our front row seats, we had no sightline issues, and only on a couple of occasions when actors were facing the opposite direction did we have trouble hearing: for the most part, this cast knows how to deliver a good line to be heard by everybody. As for the staging, Set Designer Kate Edmunds makes the stage a representation of the Oval Office, with the Great Seal of the United States on the wood floor and a white crown molding circling the lighting superstructure above. TV monitors hang from the superstructure and occupy a moat around the stage. Actors playing characters on the phone with LBJ stand halfway down the four ramps to the stage, and when they serve as crowds or spying FBI agents, they use the moat. Settings are denoted by the furniture used: the actors move on and off the stage the president's oval office desk, a motel room bed, a dining room table, or a congressional or convention podium seamlessly from scene to scene.
Meanwhile, the blocking remains cognizant of the 360-degree playing space. A notable example: In the original production, Johnson and King discuss strategy for the Civil Rights Act while sitting across from each other on either side of a coffee table in the Oval Office; in this production, King is sitting in a chair facing one direction, and Johnson places another chair next to him but facing in the opposite direction. This blocking not only plays to all views, it gives a more intimate, truthful feel to the symbiotic but testy relationship between these two men, working together but as opposites, a black preacher wanting enfranchisement for his people, a Southern politician wanting to wipe out poverty for all, neither fully trusting the other but both needing each other to achieve what they want.
And what is right. "The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, but very slowly," King tells Moses after sealing the compromise on the Mississippi delegation. "I'd say the moral arc wasn't much in evidence around here this weekend," Moses replies, and then throws King's own words, "We have got to take a stand," back in his face. "When we get a voting rights bill, this will all be worthwhile," King argues. "You think Goodman and Chaney and Schwerner will feel that way?" Moses counters, naming the three murdered volunteers, before walking off and leaving King to grapple with his own conscience. Did that scene make us feel a little squeamish? That's Johnson's question to us at the end of the play concerning all the events it covers. "Did you have to look away sometimes? 'Cause this is how new things are born," he says, and he goes on to describe the loss of three babies and the doctor's footprints in his wife's blood after Lynda Bird was born. "And I thought, yeah, this is familiar. I know this."
It's strange that a play of such heroic personalities achieving some of the greatest social changes in American history could be as squeamish as it is funny, as optimistic in tone as it is pessimistic in nature. And maybe it seems all the more pessimistic today because, well, look around us. Where are we now? How far have we advanced when it comes to race? How far have we slid when it comes to politics? What these two leaders did was something perhaps we all need to start doing with more regularity: they grappled with their consciences and chose the greater good.
April 16, 2016