Desmond Bing is no stranger to the D.C. theatre scene. He’s made the rounds around town, starring in shows at Studio Theatre, Folger Theatre, Olney Theatre, Mosiac Theatre, and more. Bing and the rest of the 16 actor cast of The Great Society return to Arena Stage’s Fichandler Theatre for the sequel to their successful 2016 play All the Way. Great Society tells the story of LBJ’s fraught relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr. during civil rights protests and the Vietnam War.
We spoke about the challenges of playing multiple roles (four different characters!) and getting the unique opportunity to reunite with other cast and production team after a couple years. The cast is so close they’ve been sharing the cold and flu going around, but Bing says that hopefully they all recover by opening night because, “There’s no understudies, so the show must go on!”
BYT: Where does The Great Society pick up after All The Way?
Desmond Bing: The story of The Great Society picks up with when they got the Civil Rights Act passed, which was kind of the super-objective of All the Way. They got everything passed, besides the voting rights. So, my character in particular, is still trying to gun for the voting rights. Because those were a lot of the reasons that people were still protesting in the streets. There were all these crazy things going on: where they would go to register to vote and they would have to take all these tests or jump through all these hoops and stuff. There were still ways that the government was blocking access to the African American’s right to vote. LBJ now wants to implement this plan called The Great Society. It basically helped create the America we’re in today.
I had no idea LBJ created a bunch of the programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, things like that. I had no idea that those things were implemented under his administration in his second term. That was really interesting to learn that. So that’s where The Great Society picks up, with [LBJ’s] fight to implement these things to make life better for all Americans, not just African Americans, but African Americans would happen to be the ones benefiting from these programs. It was kind of two birds with one stone. He couldn’t come out and say “yes, African Americans” because then he’d lose support from all of his Southern Dixiecrats but he still wanted to implement programs to help African Americans.
BYT: How do you think the play speaks to our current political and cultural climate?
D.B.: When we did All the Way, 45 wasn’t in there yet. We were all still talking about [the possibility of] that. We were just in that mindset of ‘this could never happen.’ I feel like this story in particular, it’s just another facet or continuation of people still fighting for their rights. Literally their inalienable rights. Things that were promised to us in the Constitution when this country was created. And the wheelings and dealings that’s involved with getting a bill passed or a law created. What you have to do and the sacrifices you have to make. How it’s relevant to today, there’s just a lot of hands in the pot trying to get things. That’s kind of the situation there is now. And I never knew this about LBJ but I just feel like he was trying to do the right thing. Denying people their rights based on their skin color was not right, and he knew that. He did as much as he could as far as he could. My hat’s off to LBJ.
BYT: What research did you do to play these historical figures, beyond just the reading of the play?
D.B.: Our dramaturg for All the Way and for this one were amazing. For All the Way, we got this giant packet of information about all the characters and their backgrounds and stories. So we could have a reference point. Also for The Great Society we have a huge reference packet. I’ve been watching videos. Just gathering as much information about Bob Moses and Hosea Williams, who are the main people who I’m playing. I have another scene as this guy Ronald Frye, who was kind of the beginning of the Watts Riot. There’s not that much information about him but that’s where I kind of get to piece together stuff and use my imagination.
When you have someone who has an abundant amount of information on them, like Bob Moses, it’s really great to throw yourself into it and figure out everything, based on all the things this guy did, all the facts. Then I kind of create a character from that. What is someone like who’s a math teacher, who went to Harvard, who got married really young, who lived in New York, who didn’t really deal with a lot of racism but chose to go into this fight and fight for their rights? Who chose to go down to the South and fight for freedom? I love it. Research is probably one of my favorite parts.
BYT: You’re playing multiple roles, can you tell me a little more about each of the parts?
D.B.: My main role is Bob Moses, who was the creator of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. He’s still championing the Voting Rights Act. He wants it to be amended to the Civil Rights Bill. Without voting rights we cannot have real legislative power. That’s how I’m coming at it. With Hosea Williams, he was definitely one of the right hand men for Martin Luther King, Jr. He was there for the Selma Marches. Watching that footage, seeing him there on the bridge marching has been really beneficial to me, to see the look on [William’s] face, It’s invaluable to an actor.
In terms of Frye, like I said, there’s not much information on him. It’s only a scene too, so how do I make this character as real as possible. That’s where my imagination kicks in. Kyle [Donnelly] is such a great, collaborative director. She creates and surrounds herself with a team of people that she knows she can trust.
BYT: How is it being back with the returning actors from All the Way after two years?
D.B.: It’s freakin’ amazing! It’s so cool. From the get go, everyone was so awesome, supportive, and collaborative in All the Way. We have most of the cast back. It’s like seeing family again. The new people are wonderful. It’s great to see them work and implement them into things. Kyle has created a space that’s so enriching and safe. She gives her actors freedom to make choices, wrong or right. We’re still discovering stuff. We’re all discovering together. I think that’s what brings us together. That’s why we’re so close because we’re all in it together.
BYT: When you all performed All the Way did you know you’d be returning to do The Great Society?
D.B.: I honestly had no idea. I knew Robert [Schenkkan, the playwright] had written a second part when he came down for All the Way, because we got to meet him and he’s absolutely wonderful. We knew it existed and was performed at Oregon Shakespeare Festival with Jack [Willis], who plays LBJ. I didn’t know that Arena was planning on doing it, though.
I actually changed my number and the old casting director at Arena had been trying to reach me for a week. She finally just messaged me on Instagram or Facebook and asked “Did you change your number?” She said she was trying to make me an offer for [The Great Society] and asked what I was doing and I said, “Yes, yes! I’m down! I’ll do it! I’m free!” I love that. I love when I’ve worked with a director and they value and trust and believe in my talent enough that they don’t have to call me in for an audition. You know what I’m bringing to the table so it was just validating and affirming to be given a straight offer from Arena Stage.
BYT: You’ve done a ton of acting work around D.C. What do you like about the D.C. theatre scene, as a performer?
D.B.: This is what I love about this place: you can come here and be an actor, just an actor. Artistically, D.C. has felt like [it’s saying to me] “Yes! What do you want to do? Cool! Let’s do it!” I’m really glad I made the decision to move back here for the theatre. People here love the theatre, especially young people. D.C. is just great for that. If you build it they will come.
Feature image: (L to R) JaBen Early as Stokely Carmichael, David Emerson Tony as Roy Wilkins, Desmond Bing as Bob Moses, Craig Wallace as Ralph Abernathy and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo by Stan Barouh.