The infamous LBJ, Lyndon Baines Johnson, is most renowned for his civil rights activism. But did you know that he used the word “bunghole” in a sentence to a tailor and asked that there be some extra room left in the lower front part of his trousers for his “nutsack” to have some breathing space? Such hilarious moments are now immortalized on stage, and in the brilliant script written by Robert Schenkkan, with All the Way at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
The play All the Way (with the title based on the slogan used in Johnson’s reelection campaign: “All the Way with LBJ”) is a testament to the civil rights movement, politics, the accidental administration of Johnson, the activism of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the sketchy underground dealings of the government. Put on by Seattle Repertory Theatre in partnership with the world-renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the production had a good head start on securing great actors to fill big britches. It’s a difficult job to do justice to great American leaders like LBJ and Martin Luther King, Jr., as Jack Willis and Kenajuan Bentley, respectively, are on task to do.
The casting is well done, as each actor has a certain look to them that matches their character’s personalities, and their differences play out well on stage, thanks to some nice direction from director Bill Rauch. While the actors are top-notch, the unfortunate part was that I could still remember they were actors. The one actor who completely convinced me that he was his character was Wayne T. Carr, who portrayed Stokely Carmichael. Carr is likely the youngest actor on the stage, but he fits into his character best. Carr was constantly present — you would never catch him slipping or just watching as other acting went on around him. He’s there, and he’s Mr. Stokely Carmichael.
The production has an ingenious set, with a stationary congress used for a variety of purposes and a centralized middle section used as the Oval Office, civil rights movement headquarters, and campaign fields. A green screen covering the back wall helps with the setting as it switches views depending on the location and even the angle the characters are facing, while also providing context such as dates and information for the audience.
While the production did not make me want to pump my first in the air, All the Way exemplifies the reasons we need theater in our communities: to remind us of our history and viewpoints of time, and to encourage and inspire us to evaluate our lives and society. The production needs work, but once they get their flow, it just might be the type of production that changes you. I do encourage you to attend, so you too can laugh along as politicians curse and cover up their personal lives, while learning about the in-depth world of LBJ. And after seeing All the Way, you can see the second installment of this two-play series, The Great Society.
All the Way
Seattle Repertory Theatre
November 14, 2014 - January 4, 2015