Monday, October 01, 2012

Play: Hey, Hey, LBJ

All The Way, Robert Schenkkan, directed by Bill Rauch, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Bowmer Theater

Short Version: Lyndon Baines Johnson schools everyone on politics. 

A little personal background.This is set (only slightly) before my time). I was 7 when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. My political depth of that age consisted of sending LBJ a birthday card (since we share the same birth date). I got a response, thanking me, which was nice, and typoed my last name, which makes me feel sad to this day and probably accounts for my deep cynicism of political office, a cynicism which would blossom in the Nixon era. 

The story pulls a chunk of LBJ's life from between his ascension as an "accidental president" (his words) to his re-election (and with it his validation), and in particularly his work on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 played out against the politics of the era. Jack Willis is LBJ, wheeling with others as well as dealing with his own limitations. Kenajuan Bentley is a stern, cautious Martin Luther King, Peter Frechette is both Hubert Humphrey (his Happy Warrior feels like he is huffing laughing gas) and Strom Thurmond (at his unctuous best). Jonathan Haugen is a bumptious, bullying George Wallace. Christopher Liam Moore is Walter Jenkins, LBJ's aide, deeply supportive, but in the end betrayed by the very realpolitik forces that LBJ trafficked in,

The great thing about Jack Willis' portrayal is that he never truly tips his hand. His LBJ almost feels Nixonian in nature, willing to play any card, pull any favor, make any threat in order to get what he wants. And through it all, we don't know if he supporting Civil Rights because he believes in them, or because he sees it as a means to the end of his own re-election. We see him maneuvering around his conservative opposition while manipulating the liberal wing of the party at an arm's length (MLK and Humphrey in particular, who he schools in the fine art of politics). Willis's LBJ is both restless and focused, deeply aware that he is changing the nature of the Democratic party, both for the better and to his own ends (much is made in recent years of Nixon's "southern strategy", adopting the hard-core former confederacy, but that transferal of conservative loyalties goes back through LBJ to Thurmond's Dixiecrats in the 40's).

The facts are all here, both the major (Freedom Summer) to the forgotten (The seating of the Mississipi Delegation at the convention) to the ignored (the Gulf of Tonkin is considered a distraction and a sideshow). Decisions are made both on the shortest of short-term goals (beating Goldwater) and the longest (improving the rights of a large chunk of Americans). It is a great history lesson wrapped up in theatrical form.

The set is simple with with a open center and rising desks around it, flexing from Congress to the Oval Office to the Campaign trail. The gallery is always occupied, as the cast takes on general roles as observers when they aren't in their main roles, with the end a reminder that the whole world is watching. The play is written by Robert Shenkkan, who penned By the Waters of Babylon, a smaller play that did not impress me. Here, on a larger stage, he excels. 

The strength of both the writing and the acting makes this a solid tour de force of American history, and shed light on the ugly and brutal methodology of how change really occurs within our political system. Bismark is credited as saying that anyone who loves the law, or sausage, should not watch either being made. Bismark would have watched this play, and taken notes.

More later,