I deeply regret not being able to get this post up right after I saw this show (I’ve been delayed by mental health, work, and now the worst cold ever) but now I’m living in a very different mindset than I was just a few weeks ago. Of course, when I saw All the Way, I was in the middle of a panic episode that had lasted several days and influenced how I perceived the show (more about that in a sec) so maybe it’s not all that different. Because now I’m panicked about how we as a theater community operate when allegations of assault arise on social media (I have so much to say about this. There will be a post. Hopefully). And that’s where my head is at right now. But I sat down to write this review because I need to get it written. Because wow.
This show is a doozy. I don’t know what I expected when I walked into the History Theatre, but it was not three hours of fear that history – that I know happened – would not actually happen. How you can make a play about a known legislative act – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – in such an intense way that keep you on the edge of your seat as to whether it’s actually going to get passed is some pretty powerful stuff. Of course, this all carried the added weight that there’s plenty in the world to point out that this legislation wasn’t enough and plenty of people are still pushing for action that would hurt civil rights. The timeliness of this play is certainly noted, especially in the program where artistic director Ron Peluso sees the opportunity to mention Charlottesville and does it. It’s a simple thing but something I’m proud to see – it’s easy to step aside from current events instead of embracing how they affect the play you’re doing. So recognizing that is an important marker – for a theater and for its audience.
This huge, incredible cast does a great job, especially as many remain on stage for large parts of the performance. Pearce Bunting is absolutely incredible as Lyndon Johnson, Andrew Erskine Wheeler is a wonderful Hubert Humphrey (though Humphrey fans might balk at the way the playwright has chosen to portray him), Shawn Hamilton is powerful as Martin Luther King Jr, and J.C. Cutler is a marvelous aggressively antagonizing J. Edgar Hoover. Other highlights include Peter Middlecamp as Walter Jenkins, Darrick Mosley as Stokely Carmichael, Jamila Anderson as Coretta Scott King, and Josh Carson as George Wallace. This whole cast (which due to its size I’m unable to list here) deserves a lot of love and appreciation because there’s so many moving parts in this play – it’s a bulky story with a lot of history but flows easily and smoothly (even though the story it’s telling is anything but smooth).
There is one thing that bothered me though, which has gotten under my skin long after I saw the show. It doesn’t deal with the production, per say, but audience reaction that troubled me. Here there be spoilers, so if you don’t want a twist in the piece revealed to you, you might want skip this until you see it. In the second act, Walter (played by Peter Middlecamp) is arrested for homosexual activity. We watching him uncomfortably undress into hospital garments as we learn his has been sent to a mental institution. Lyndon Johnson asks Hoover, who has revealed this information to him, “How do you know if someone is… that way?” It eventually becomes a way for Johnson to prod Hoover for his behavior and pointing out allegations at Hoover’s own sexual behavior. But it uncomfortably got a lot of audience laughter through this exchange. While Walter is being taken away to whatever hell awaited a gay man hospitalized in the 1960s, audience members are laughing (maybe because Johnson is kind of goofy and that’s just how he is? But not like funny goofy just… he’s that “Southern good ole boy” type that people like to throw around). I know this was the 60s and people had utterly different views on sexuality than they do now, but I can’t help but wonder if the statement of “that way” is setting up for a punchline for a joke. Is it the way it’s written or is it an audience issue? Do they (the audience) think there’s something funny about being “that way”? Even though we’re clearly seeing the repercussions and discrimination towards LGBTQ people on stage (which is such a wonderful nod to how far civil rights really extends, even if it didn’t at the time).
It does worry me that there’s a deeper issue at play. The US recently voted against the UN’s move to ban the death for same-sex acts. (The ban passed nonetheless and since then the US has tried to clarify that they were concerned with “broader concerns” of how the resolution approached condemning the death penalty in all circumstances [source]. Yeah, I’m not happy with that answer either.) Listening to various podcasts has made me realize how far we have to go to accepting LGBTQ+ people in our country and, given the cultural moment, I’m nervous. While my general anxiety upon entering this performance didn’t help, I think it’s important to note this audience reaction, either to inform the theater so that they can better prepare their audiences or… I don’t know. Make us more aware of the little abrasions people in minority groups face during a show? I wanted to walk out at that moment, simply because of the audience, even though I was deeply invested in the show. This play brings up a serious issue of how the FBI punished and hospitalized homosexual people and the audience response deeply concerns me. Since we need to speak up now about issues in our community (as noted in my intro) I feel it’s my job to talk about these issues, no matter how nitpicky or oversensitive it might seem. Because it’s not either of those things. I noticed it and I can’t be alone.
I encourage you to go see this show. No matter how the audience responds around you, it’s a powerful piece and one that shows the complicated maneuvering, the deal making, and the power struggles of DC – and reminds us of how much work we still have to do.
All the Way is written by Robert Schenkkan and directed by Ron Peluso. It is playing now through October 29th. Ticket and show information can be found on the History Theatre’s website.