All the Way, the Tony-winning drama about Lyndon Johnson, has naturally generated local interest in Texas. But the play’s larger, divisive political and racial echoes from 1964 are also impossible to ignore — and they’ve only gotten louder with recent violent events. Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks sat down with local All Things Considered host Justin Martin to talk about the show at the Dallas Theater Center and its remarkable relevance.
Justin: I heard the Dallas Theater Center has already extended the run of the LBJ drama, All the Way – in fact, they did it even before it opened.
Jerome: Yeah, there’s a lot of local interest – for obvious reasons. Lyndon Johnson remains the great Texas politician – and not simply because he became president. Whether you agreed with his politics or not, he is arguably not just the most liberal president since FDR but probably the most effective, the most transformational. And as a man, he was also a big, vulgar, insecure, idealistic, ruthless character – even a tragic figure.
Lots to write about.
Exactly. Big drama. Critics have talked about what a terrific, compelling figure Johnson was, a natural for theater. But the fact is he’s resisted fictional treatments before this, partly because he was often viewed and treated as little more than a bully and a rube, even a corrupt rube. From MacBird and The Right Stuff to Selma and all those JFK conspiracy theories, fictional LBJs have mostly been satiric minor characters, outright cartoon monsters or simply inaccurate, reductive depictions.
Billy Lee Brammer’s 1961 novel, The Gay Place, has remained perhaps the only fictional portrait of LBJ that managed to capture much of his outlandish, sentimental, benevolent, wheeler-dealer nature. LBJ — in the character of Governor Arthur Fenstemaker — is what elevates The Gay Place into the realm of classic Texas novels, even classic political novels.
So a stage play that tries to take the measure of this man? And one that brings us the fullest theatrical portrait we’re likely to see? That’s a play you might want to set down your barbecue plate and go see. One of playwright Robert Schenkkan’s achievements was just corralling this much of Johnson into a script.
True, he doesn’t include Johnson’s everyday country-boy crudeness, his blunt displays of big-dog power. LBJ would often scratch his crotch in front of female reporters or, perhaps most infamously, conduct Oval Office business while seated on the toilet.
Yes. Lady Bird must have been a long-suffering saint. Schenkkan does include a fair amount of Johnson’s ‘salty’ language and, what’s more important, his private cruelties, infidelities and political manipulations, even a passing mention of his Bobby Baker bribery scandal.
So as a stage character, Schenkkan’s Johnson manages to harangue and whine and bluster. But even as he’s on the wrong side of history with, say, his arm-twisting opposition to the attempt by black activists to break the all-white Mississippi delegation’s hold at the 1964 Democratic Convention, Johnson is clearly motivated by something grander than mere control. Driven by his own memories of poverty and teaching wretched Latino immigrants, he’s a ‘good monster,’ he fights for Civil Rights, but in his own compromised and even underhanded fashion.
When it came to stoking our local interest and pride in this drama, it certainly helped that All the Way won the Tony Award for best play and Bryan Cranston won a Tony for his performance as LBJ. But all that put more pressure on Brandon Potter, who plays LBJ here. Potter creates a compelling character, both driving and driven. Potter doesn’t deliver an impersonation. He doesn’t sound like LBJ, doesn’t look like him — he’s not old enough, not jowly enough. Nor does he have the man’s physical gangliness or brute caginess. Potter’s too contained and restrained.
If all that’s true, why’d you find him ‘compelling’?
He has a voice like a rock crusher. When Potter talks, you don’t pay attention to anyone else. He commands the stage — which, it seems, was much of the LBJ experience in person. Simply put, Potter’s voice packs a lot of drama.
So how’s the rest of the show?
All the Way is the sharpest, strongest work artistic director Kevin Moriarty has done on a large scale. His previous successes have mostly been small, tightly focused plays like Oedipus el Rey. But with bigger dramas, like his different efforts with Shakespeare, Moriarty seems to feel the need to cram stuff into them — as if they needed more visual and dramatic interest to hold our attention, certainly more than Shakespeare felt was necessary. Basically, he doesn’t seem to have much faith in actors.
All the Way has seventeen actors playing multiple roles, so it’s as big as a Shakespearean epic. But it’s written like a dark, political thriller, like a movie. It’s fast-paced, with a lot of quick cuts, character changes and projections that Schenkkan wrote into the script (“Seven months to election”). So while the play may unfold simply enough — it’s a clock-ticking chronology — technically, it’s a fairly fast, tricky show. Moriarty makes it work, and he does this without running off a photocopy of the Broadway hit. This thing grabs hold.
But in your voice, I hear that note, that sound — ‘there’s more to the story.’
Well, anyone who goes to All the Way simply for Johnson may be surprised how large a role Martin Luther King Jr. plays. It really is his drama as well, which Moriarty underscores, even over-emphasizes.
LBJ is trying to get his 1964 Civil Rights Bill past the diehard Southern segregationists, so there’s all this back room dealing. But the same kind of conflict rips at King, who’s holding the civil rights movement together with little more than his voice and his moral authority. The DTC production is almost literally a battle of voices. This is a talky play, but talky in a sublime way — there are ferocious arguments over leadership, over what is right, over which of your allies force your hand, which allies must be betrayed to gain something.
King yells in frustration at Senator Hubert Humphrey: “I’ve put all my credibility on the line telling our young people that this president can be trusted. But to them, there’s no difference between Dirksen’s amendments and Bull Connor’s billy clubs. They want results. They are in Mississippi right now, putting their lives on the line — registering Negroes for a vote they still don’t have.”
That’s Shawn Hamilton, who’s excellent as King; he manages to project a sense of authority without making King a plaster saint. He’s human — weary, angry, promiscuous — but also righteous and inspiring. It’s worth noting that, unlike Johnson’s private conversations, which we have on tape, King’s actual words could not be used by Schenkkan. The King estate charges for that privilege and attaches conditions to any use. So what you hear in All the Way is Schenkkan imitating King. Everything King said has always sounded as if it were inscribed in stone somewhere, so it’s remarkable how well Schenkkan pulls off this paraphrasing. [/interview_answer]
So where does all this ‘battle of the voices’ lead to?
On civil rights, Schenkkan builds the play to a rhetorical climax. He twines together King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech with a speech Johnson delivered in New Orleans. LBJ expressly broke with his Southern Democratic colleagues; he denounced their traditional use of race-baiting to get elected. Yoking the speeches together is a bit of sleight-of-hand with the calendar: Johnson’s speech was in October, during the heat of the presidential campaign; King didn’t deliver his Nobel speech until December 1964 — after LBJ had safely won the election.
You’re saying, strictly speaking, the scene isn’t historically accurate.
But I’m also saying I think this compression of the calendar is perfectly permissible. It’s pretty small potatoes when it comes to dramatic license and, besides, that joined moment encapsulates much of the play. We’re meant to see King and Johnson on parallel tracks, tense but working together, needing each other to get this tremendous job done.
But there’s also a symbolic equation here, one that Moriarty underscores by having Potter and Hamilton move together as they speak, trading lines like soloists in a jazz band [the move together isn’t in the script — there, the two men are kept in different parts of the stage, emphasizing King in Oslo, Johnson in New Orleans]. Having them stand side-by-side delivering their speeches suggests a moral equivalency that troubles me. Johnson certainly risked a lot to push through his Civil Rights Bill. He alienated old Southern allies and mentors, like Senator Richard Russell of Mississippi. Friendships and allegiances are often what make politics work, so it was no small decision. It could undermine Johnson’s effectiveness, his power. It isolated him to a degree.
And as Johnson famously forecast, doing this meant he handed the South to the Republicans for at least a generation — very soon, Richard Nixon developed his ‘Southern strategy’ and deliberately wooed blue-collar white racists. Schenkkan makes the case that historians and biographers already have: By forcibly working to break the back of America’s centuries-old apartheid, LBJ endangered his own political future — and that of the Democratic party as well.
But risking your career to help overturn a great evil is one thing. But with King risking arrests, beatings, financial ruin, the murder of friends and associates, the bombing of his wife and children and, finally, a rifle bullet to the face — that’s a completely different order of sacrifice. Many Americans, particularly white liberals, have come to look back at the civil rights era in the ’60s with a nostalgic, benevolent glow. It’s a moment when many of us joined forces and did something truly worthwhile on a national scale for our fellow citizens — even if what most of us did was just vote for the right leaders.
To a large extent, such self-congratulation is true. We did do that. But in fighting that cause, African-Americans simply risked more, pushed more, struggled more, suffered more, had more at stake. Which means as much as this link between Johnson and King is meant to illustrate that the two men needed each other, it can also convey a warm sense of shared danger and sacrifice — one that is simply not earned.
And while we’re on the subject of permissible dramatic license —
— Schenkkan also somewhat distorts the 1964 presidential campaign, partly for reasons of suspense. In All the Way, the race between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater becomes a close call, even a nail-biter. Actors repeatedly shout reports from South Carolina that LBJ’s down six points and in Georgia, Johnson is “down by 7 points and falling fast!”
His eventual victory, of course, is a tremendous relief — the outcome Johnson so desperately wanted. He became not only the first Southerner elected president since Andrew Johnson, he gained the most lopsided win in history in the popular vote (the biggest margin since James Madison in 1820) and the sixth most-lopsided in terms of electoral votes. It was a rout.
But this was pretty well forecast at the time. It was widely predicted long before the ’64 conventions. In Flawed Giant, the second volume of his biography of LBJ, Robert Dallek reports that Johnson entered the race with a favorable rating in the high sixty, even seventy, percent range. He could lose seven points in piddling ol’ Georgia and it wouldn’t have made a dent in his victory.
But again, I’d argue that Schenkkan’s creation of this close-call election is justifiable — it’s more than a way to give his lengthy play some extra dramatic tension toward the end. It’s psychologically accurate. This is how the needy Johnson saw himself: embattled, out on a limb, alone. To him, anything less than an overwhelming affirmation of his administration, an expression of public love, was a failure, a mortal blow.
So Schenkkan dramatizes what Dallek reports: Even in the last days of the race, when it was clear to any impartial observer that his win was in the bag, Johnson was marshaling resources and throwing in more money. To this day, Johnson’s campaign is a classic case of overkill. The infamous “daisy attack ad” wasn’t really necessary. Not only had Goldwater’s policies split the Republican party and driven independents into the Democratic fold, he continued to make unrepentant, outrageous remarks to the press — a case of a supposedly noble candidate ‘wanting to be right’ more than winning.
But enough about Johnson and King or the ’64 election. A small but very real surprise in the DTC production is how close Adam Anderson comes to stealing the show as Stokely Carmichael. Carmichael was one of the leaders of SNCC, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee; he’s the more outspoken, more extreme civil rights leader onstage. He’s actually a minor character, an irritating trouble-maker for King, but Anderson conveys Carmichael’s charisma and wounded rage. Carmichael appears in only a couple scenes, but he’s riveting and, to a degree, heartbreaking.
All the Way was written in 2012 – two years before the shooting of Michael Brown ignited Black Lives Matter. Schenkkan was certainly aware of how the civil rights movement remains pertinent today, but he couldn’t know how painfully relevant this play would be.
When Carmichael is outraged by the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi and starts shouting ‘Stand up! Stand up!’ you can’t help but fear it’s been 60 years since that moment, and, my God, we’re still battling over black voting rights and shooting deaths. That’s why this play is both thrilling and heartbreaking.
But you know what else Schenkkan couldn’t have foreseen?
Our current campaign. Schenkkan himself joked about this Saturday; he was there, after the show, answering questions onstage. The Republican establishment tearing itself apart over an angry conservative rebellion? And an outspoken candidate who can’t be stopped? Not to mention all the public expressions of racist rage? That’s 1964 with Barry Goldwater and George Wallace, and after watching All the Way, you have to wonder why TV pundits haven’t been bringing up 1964 repeatedly as the precedent that must be haunting Republicans right now. Our political circumstances today are very different, of course, but you can’t miss these echoes. They’re practically deafening.
So the play makes ‘history come alive.’
Well, it also makes you wonder, sadly, just how much struggle and pain is required for any real change in this country. With all these things going for this production of All the Way, I’m perfectly willing to overlook the show’s clunky wigs and the fact that Beowulf Boritt’s set is impressive, but its row of classic Federal columns along the back obliterates several scenes, the audience can hardly see them.
It’s a pleasure, Justin.