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Washington DC by Tracy Lyon

Looking Over The President’s Shoulder

Art can be found in the most unexpected places. When most people seek art they may look toward paintings, books, theater or music. Alonzo Fields preferred music but he was also able to recognize the art in setting a beautiful dining table. From 1931 to 1953 Alonzo Fields was the chief butler in the White House. This grandson of a former slave stood behind presidents as history was being made. Now that history, along with Fields’ personal story, can be heard in a solo piece called Looking Over The President’s Shoulder.

Looking Over the Presiden'ts ShoulderThe show, which is currently playing at Ford’s Theatre, takes the audience from Fields’ early childhood in Lyles Station, Indiana to his adulthood. As a young man he held a number of positions that included having his own grocery store and being a member of the Negro Baseball League. However, music was Field’s true passion. He longed to perform opera. Fields took part in many musical pursuits even crossing paths with a young Marian Anderson. Eventually, he went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Unfortunately, Fields still had to pay the bills, so he took a job as the butler to the head of MIT. It was during this time that Fields had a fortuitous meeting with Mrs. Herbert Hoover. After his employer’s death, Mrs. Hoover offered him a job at the White House. At that time, Fields was on the verge of making his solo debut. He decided to delay his debut for a year and work at the White House for just a few months. Instead, Fields stayed through four presidents.

The piece is elegantly written by James Still. He has created a full picture of a man with intelligence, dignity and quite a lot of wit. He does all this while creating a picture of how life really was for an African-American man working in the White House during those years. Still also serves very well as director. Not one moment in this show seems calculated. He projects an easy environment where stories can be told and secrets can be revealed.

Alonzo Fields is played by Arena Stage alum Wendell Wright. Wright gives a lovely performance that relates all the joys and challenges of this extraordinary man’s life. As Wright tells Fields’ stories, he imitates many of the famous people encountered: people such as Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill and even Errol Flynn. However, these are not full on imitations - merely the essences of these people are conveyed. One does not see an actor recreating Churchill but instead it is Alonzo Fields communicating his own impressions. Ultimately, there is something endearing about Wright’s portrayal. Watching him on stage makes one want to know him better.

The gracefully designed set was fashioned by Russell Metheny. Made up of several chairs and columns, the whole scene has Washington, DC written all over it. The set is enhanced by Darren McCroom’s subtle lighting design. Kathleen Egan designed the costumes which are very appropriate for the character.

Looking Over The President’s Shoulder is a wonderful mix of art and history. It proves that art can be discovered in everything and when one least expects it, they can become part of something special. Looking Over The President’s Shoulder runs through March 7th.

Ford's Theatre
Looking Over The President’s Shoulder
January 30th – March 7th
Written and Directed by James Still
511 Tenth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20004
Ticket Information: 202-347-4833 or www.fordstheatre.org

Cast List

Alonzo Fields: Wendell Wright


Photo: Stan Barouh


-- Tracy Lyon


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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