Watching The Great Society is like watching a current newscast. Protests swell, Republicans sweep elections, racism rises, and then the audience remembers this was “back then”— the 1960s. But it’s also now.
The play follows Lyndon B. Johnson’s full term in office and the idea he held for a “Great Society” with civil rights, health care, less poverty, and more. With a whirling group of advisors and adversaries coming and going, though, and the tumultuous world outside, we see the inner workings of why things did not go entirely as planned — notably, with the war in Vietnam and the response to civil rights marchers and activists.
The Great Society is preceded by the play All The Way, about Johnson taking on the presidency after President Kennedy was shot. After such a tragedy, the mood in The Great Society is anticipatory, excited. Johnson is ready to effect change, elected on his own terms. It’s immediately clear it won’t be that easy — he has people to please and compromises to make. This is the decline of a president, and a presidency, seen from the inside. Jack Willis as Johnson is a firecracker that elegantly goes out as the four-year term wears on. It’s alternately joyful and painful to see how much Johnson wanted and what he achieved.
Kenajuan Bentley as Martin Luther King, Jr. is also exceptional. He conveys the difficulty of holding a movement together, making his own compromises, while trying to maintain his ideals. The conversations between the president and King are particularly interesting — like the behind-the-scenes stuff you never learned about in high school history. And history this is. The play uses some actual quotes and conversations recorded in primary sources.
The Great Society is long, but immersive. It truly feels like a story you can see all around you, ebbing and shifting as the years go by. The use of real photographs of protests while protests and state troopers clash in the play is frighteningly real. The ensemble cast flits in and out, grabbing your attention with heartbreaking or gut-wrenching sincerity.
It takes little effort to draw the parallels between today’s protests and the ones in The Great Society. Today, they are in response to police violence against black folks and greater institutional violence. Back then they were about all that and more — voting rights, redlining, school segregation.
George Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but it seems even when we do remember, change can be imperceptibly slow. The only comfort we can take from scrutinizing the past is the knowledge that some things did change in the end, and the ones that didn’t are the fight we face today.
The Great Society
Seattle Repertory Theatre
December 5, 2014 - January 4, 2015