Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
All the Way
The action runs from the day of President Kennedy's assassination, which made Johnson the "accidental president," through election day 1964, when LBJ won a landslide victory (but lost five states in the Deep South, an area that had been solidly Democratic until that election). We are shown LBJ as the consummate political strategist, working to get a civil rights bill passed despite intransigent opposition from entrenched Southern politicians on one side, and criticism from civil rights activists and liberals on the other side that he was doing too little. The bill is ultimately passed, but with the crucial voting rights protections left out. President Johnson promised activists and liberals that voting rights would come, but only after the 1964 election (when "All the Way with LBJ" was the motto), and only if he won. Along the way to passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he also has to deal with crises caused by the murder of three Freedom Riders in Mississippi, and a delegate challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic Convention.
It is clear that everyone around Johnson doubts what he saysboth when he offers support for civil rights, and when he tells Southern politicians that his support for civil rights is just a ploy to keep liberal support. The audience could reasonably be equally doubtful. We are meant to be convinced of his sincerity based on a story he tells of having been a teacher in an area full of Mexican Americans, describing his despair in seeing how society treated the children he taught. Also, he reminds us of how much he personally sacrifices to get the bill passedincluding the political losses, as when he loses Southern support (and accurately predicts that the South will remain hostile to Democrats in the future).
The play itself is a masterful work of ensemble acting, with many actors taking up multiple roles. The leads are excellent. Though Pearce Bunting does not greatly resemble Johnson, he effectively mimics many of his mannerisms and ways of speaking. Shawn Hamilton brings great nuance and quiet dignity to the role of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and J. C. Cutler offers an appropriately slimy J. Edgar Hoover. Only one caution: Andrew Wheeler may play hometown favorite Hubert Humphrey as too much of a nebbish for audience members who are old enough to remember Humphrey somewhat differently.
We see multiple sides of the struggle. We go from LBJ negotiating, cajoling, and threatening other politicians, to Dr. King's often tense negotiations with movement allies, who arduously debate the best way forward. The play also provides us with a glimpse (albeit a brief one) into the domestic affairs of Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. We watch a mostly self-effacing and desperate-to please Lady Bird Johnson (Jennifer Blagen) deliver a heartbreaking "yes but" type of rationalization of why she puts up with Johnson's adulteries (after all, "he chose me."). Jamila Anderson's Coretta Scott King has few illusions about men or human nature, and she supports her husband's historic work without diminishing herselfor compromising her agency. Her world perspective still cannot save her from being crushed by the revelationcourtesy of MLK-obsessed J. Edgar Hooverof her husbands' dalliances. Anderson gives us a subtle and elegant performance as both Coretta Scott King and Fannie Lou Hamer; as usual, she leaves you wanting to see more.
Except in the company of his young assistant and friend Walter Jenkins (Peter Middlecamp) or Lady Bird, LBJ seems always in control. However, later in the play, as the pressure from all sides mounts, we are also shown private moments when the great manipulator curls up, literally in a fetal position, bemoaning the fact that he is unloved and unappreciated.
Schenkkan packs an enormous amount of information, and at least two dozen characters, into the three-hour play, somehow weaving it all together into a seamless and often suspenseful narrative. And in current times, it is particular refreshing to find a playwright who consistently displays respect for historical details and recorded facts. Schenkkan tries hard to give us a balanced view of Lyndon Johnson. Inevitably, his portrait remains incomplete, and his legacy complex. The play does not make the mistake of sanitizing the president's disastrous myopia about Vietnam, and Schenkkan is wise to include Johnson's most egregious and unforgettable decisions in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. All the Way does not try to simplify, though it seems clear that the playwright wants the audience to come away from the play with some admiration for Johnson. And, because of the role he played in ushering the Civil Rights Act through Congress despite enormous obstacles and tremendous pressures, we do. Primary credit for the progress in civil rights is properly given to Dr. King, the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, and all of their followers, but President Johnson used everything he had"all his facets," as my grandmother used to sayto make equal rights the law of the land.
I had Ken Burn's Vietnam War documentary series fresh in my mind when I saw the show, and when the lights came up, I found myself telling my friend that I wished the play had gone further into that part of Johnson's story "Yes, but that's not the story this play is about," he replied. And he was right, but it made me think about how much our reception and appreciation of a play is shaped in part by all the works we have seen or read before, and particularly by those that touched us most. I saw Christina Ham's excellent play about Nina Simone last year, and this play about civil rights history brought up the memory of that one, and it made me wish that All the Way portrayed more about the role black women played, and sometimes were restricted from playing, in that history. That said, I learned a great deal about Johnson and American politics in 1963-1964 that I didn't know before, and I enjoyed the all-around terrific acting.
All the Way succeeds in giving us exactly what the History Theatre was created to offer: a complex, intelligent and stimulating portrayal of a crucial chapter in our past, vividly conveying what happened, who was involved, and why it matters now. It runs through the end of the month. See it if you can.
All the Way by Robert Schenkkan. Performing through October 29, 2017, at History Theatre; 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul, MN. For tickets, call 651-292-4323 or visit www.historytheatre.com.
Directed by Ron Peluso