Playwright: Robert Shenkkan
Company: Denver Center Theatre Company
Running Time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission)
Date of Performance: Sunday, February 7, 2016.
Apologies in advance; at more than 2,000 words, this is a long winded review. All The Way was a profound experience for me, so this post is considerably more detailed than usual.
For those who do not have the patience to wade through all of it, here are the basics:
1. All The Way is a brilliant production.
2. It’s historical and political. If that doesn't interest you, this is probably not a show you'll enjoy.
3. For those that follow politics and care about policy, All The Way is a feast for the eyes, ears, and especially for the mind.
For those who are still reading, All The Way is named for Lyndon B. Johnson’s (hereafter LBJ) 1964 presidential campaign slogan “All The Way With LBJ.” For most audiences, this is a historical play, as the events happened more than 50 years ago.
It’s not historical for me. It’s real. I was a sophomore at Madison West High School in November, 1963. President Kennedy had campaigned in Madison, and I had seen him speak there. I have vivid memories of November 22, 1963, and of the swirl of events that followed, including the 1964 presidential election. So, this show, for me, is very personal. That’s a disclosure. My experience may impact my feelings about All The Way. The events of that day influenced my politics and my passion for freedom and equality. In any event, ever since that rainy day in November, 1963, I have been something of a politics and policy wonk.
It has been said that you never want to see how two things are produced: law and sausages. All The Way gives us a close up view of the former, and it’s not a pretty picture. The making of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (hereafter CRA) involved enough horse trading, back stabbing, and palace intrigue that one might think All The Way is fiction. It’s not. It’s an accurate, if somewhat cynical, retelling of the story.
|Swearing in on Air Force One. |
Photo credit: JFK Library, public domain.
President John Kennedy proposed what later became the CRA, but his role was cut short when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963. LBJ became the “accidental president” aboard Air Force One that same day, and later on decided that he would become the chief architect of the CRA. It was a noble gesture to his predecessor, but also a shrewd political move for his presidential campaign the following year.
It is this sausage making process that All The Way plays out in poignant, exquisite detail for nearly three hours. For me, that’s a rare political feast. For others, it may be too much talk and too little action. If you don’t care for politics or about how a theoretical concept of civil rights became a law, you probably won’t much care for this review either.
We all know how this story comes out; discrimination in housing, work, and many other situations is illegal. The drama, and there is plenty of it, is in the process more than the result. All The Way shows us how isolated LBJ (or any President, for that matter) is. He gets the facts, asks for options, and then pauses before making a decision. That momentary pause (done very well by C. David Johnson as LBJ) is followed by a decision that is never questioned but immediately implemented by the President’s staff.
I found that striking. LBJ decides to push the CRA, and his unquestioning staff starts to make it happen. It’s a heavy lift, but the gears start turning immediately. A decision to drop the CRA would have had the opposite result and also would not have been questioned. Presidential decisions are sometimes made in seconds, but the effects are game changing and historic. I guess I knew that on an intellectual level, but seeing it play out in All The Way is more jarring than I expected. Presidents can avoid conflict or generate it; LBJ often made the difficult calls, generated conflict, and had to deal with the consequences.
All The Way is striking in another way as well. It makes clear how policy is a product of politics. Getting reelected is the primary goal; policy is secondary. It’s a flawed system, beautifully laid bare in All The Way. We’d like to think that politicians do the right thing for the right reasons. That’s not the country we live in. If politicians do the right thing, the motivation is more often out of self interest than public interest. That's still true, making All The Way immensely relevant to politics today (thanks to DCPA and John Moore for the marvelous link). For wonks like me, that makes this one of the best scripts I’ve come across in a very long time.
All that said, you may be asking “how was the show?” The short answer is that All The Way is a first rate production of a dense but marvelous script.
|Set design: Robert Morgan. |
Projection Designer: Charles Miller.
Robert Morgan’s set design is spectacular in its simplicity, capably rendering Congress, and the Oval Office while supporting a complicated video projection system (Charles Miller, projection designer) for an infinite number of other locations. The show starts with video and slides of Kennedy’s assassination, and from there gives us constant reminders of how long it is until the November, 1964 election. Miller and Morgan team up to create an complete, functional environment to realistically display the All The Way cast.
|Live video feed from the stage.|
Projection designer: Charles Miller.
Part of the appeal of Miller’s video projections is that he has set up live video feeds from the stage. For newsworthy scenes, the actors are projected on video monitors, in grainy, 1960’s black and white. The effect at once historic and genuine.
Director Anthony Powell keeps the pace brisk; I hardly noticed that three hours had slipped by. He has a talented cast, and he uses nearly all of the actors to play multiple roles. Powell orchestrates the set and scene changes like a dance; set pieces appear from below, and disappear just as quickly for the next scene. He integrates all of the elements, including video, lights, set pieces and actors into a chess match at times, with the critical pieces moving across an invisible chess board on the stage.
C. David Johnson is President Johnson, the “accidental” President who was a ceremonial second stringer one second, and the leader of the free world the next. It’s a mind blowing transition, and it takes a toll on LBJ. Johnson’s portrayal is prickly; he is given to angry outbursts, particularly with his wife Lady Bird. Mr. Johnson has a mountain of lines; he’s onstage nearly the entire three hours. He fumbled a few of those lines at this performance. Despite those glitches, his performance is first rate. He delivers a nuanced LBJ, one who deftly pulls the levers of power, but suffers bouts of indecision and insecurity.
|Left: Rev. M. L. King ( Terence Archie). |
Right: LBJ (C. David Johnson).
Terence Archie is striking as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Schenkkan’s script is a full blown portrait of the man, not the myth. We know King as a preacher and a gifted orator; Schenkkan gives us a flawed man who betrays his wife and disappoints his allies. Archie soars when he recreates King’s speeches, but wilts when he’s confronted with practical problems. He is hardly able to unite a small group of his colleagues, let alone a country looking for integrity and leadership. Archie show us the civil rights hero as who he really was...a flawed man who accomplished much more than even he probably expected.
Terence Archie is not a supporting actor here. He’s the star, along with C. David Johnson, and sometimes his star shines the brightest.
|LBJ (C. David Johnson). |
Election driven passion to accomplish a goal.
Don't get in his way.
There’s not a flaw or a false note anywhere in All The Way. It’s a story that includes bumps, bruises, warts, and assorted chicanery. It isn’t preachy. It’s history. It will offend both liberal and conservatives at times. It will amaze you; the odds against accomplishing something as controversial as the CRA are astronomical. LBJ got it done, but he had to crush some obstacles along the way. This is not the United States of America that you learn about in text books. Rather, this is the real world, where bare knuckles, ruined careers, and big egos are essential to the process.
All The Way arrives at the Denver Center at the right time; February is Black History Month and President’s Day is February 15. The timing is not a coincidence; the Denver Center Theater Company is making a point with All The Way. We can celebrate history and we can celebrate our Presidents, even while taking a hard look at how painful the process of governing can be.
It’s sobering to watch the spectacle of how we make laws; I don’t want to even think about how we make sausage. Unlike watching hot dogs come off an assembly line though, All The Way entertains, enlightens, and perhaps even makes us better Americans.
Understudies probably have the most difficult job in theater. Josh Robinson is the understudy you want on your team when “the show must go on.”
All The Way is not for everybody. If you don’t have a passing interest in politics, this would not be a fun way to spend three hours. If you aren’t registered to vote, or if you have registered but don’t show up on election day, this probably isn’t your show. That’s not criticism. It’s just the facts. Before you spend three hours reliving the birth of legislation, you should warm up by engaging in the political process. Invest the 30-60 minutes of your time that it will take to vote this November. Mail ballots are easy and take much less time than actually going to your polling place.
To complete the disclosure I started above, I have been involved in the CRA in my work as an attorney (I’m now retired). I represented a federal agency, often defending that agency against claims of discrimination under the CRA. Most of the claims were desperate, last ditch attempts to avoid being fired. Those bogus claims are easily disposed of. It was the legitimate claims of discrimination that I handled that made my work meaningful. I was able to remedy legitimate claims before a judge or jury did it for me. I’ll always be proud of my work to defend an agency against false claims of discrimination, and to remedy those that had merit. That experience probably had some impact on my view of All The Way.
Park in the DCPA garage. It’s $12.00, and it will save you circling endlessly to find street parking.
Arrive early enough to see the exhibit in the lobby. It’s a timeline for the events in the show, with some interesting inquiries into our current take on the subjects. You can also sit behind a mock up desk and chair from the Oval Office. Get your picture taken where the name plate says “PRESIDENT.”
This show closes on February 28, 2016.
Director: Anthony Powell
Assistant Director: Geoffrey Kent
Scenic Design: Robert Mark Morgan
Costume Design: David Kay Mickelson
Lighting Design: Curtis Craig
Projection Design: Charles I. Miller
Animator/Associate Projection Designer: Topher Blair
Dramaturg: Douglas Langworthy
Voice and Dialect Coach: Jack Greenman
Casting: Elissa Myers Casting/Paul Foquet, CSA
Director of Production: Jeff Gifford
Stage Manager: Rachel Ducat
Assistant Stage Manager: Matthew Campbell
Stage Management Apprentice: Corin Ferris
President Lyndon Baines Johnson: C. David Johnson
Lady Bird Johnson/Katherine Graham/Rep. Katherine St. George/Ensemble: Kathleen McCall
Walter Jenkins/Rep. William Colmer/Ensemble: Jeffrey Roark (Understudy Josh Robinson replaced Mr. Roark for this performance.)
Lurleen Wallace/Muriel Humphrey/Ensemble: Jessica Robblee
Sen. Hubert Humphrey/Sen. Strom Thurmond/Ensemble: James Newcomb
J. Edgar Hoover/Sen. Robert Byrd: Philip Pleasants
Robert McNamara/Sen. James Eastland/Gov. Paul B. Johnson/Ensemble: Paul De Boy
Rev. Martin Luther King: Terence Archie
Rev. Ralph Abernathy/Ensemble: Jordan Barbour
Stanley Levison/Rep. William M. McCulloch/Sen. Mike Mansfield/Seymore Trammel/Ensemble: Sam Gregory
James Harrison/Stokley Carmichael/Ensemble: Laurence Curry
Deke Deloach/Rev. Edwin King/Ensemble: Geoffrey Kent
Coretta Scott King/Fannie Lou Hamer/Ensemble: Tracey Conyer Lee
Rep. Howard “Judge” Smith/Sen. Everett Dirkesen/Gov. Carl Sanders/Ensemble: Mike Hartman
Gov. George Wallace/Rep. John McCormack/Walter Reuther/Ensemble: Todd Cerveris
Roy Willkins/Aaron Henry/Ensemble: Charles E. Wallace
Bob Moses/David Dennis/Ensemble: Carjardo Lindsey
Ensemble: Erin Willis