Theatre, unlike film or television, doesn’t often go in for sequels. You can’t expect an audience to return, and getting a cast back together is like trying to reassemble a shattered vase — if all the pieces had professional representation and also engagements with other vases.
But whether or not you caught All the Way, the story of President Johnson’s election and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, at Arena Stage in 2016, I do recommend the sequel, The Great Society, running there until March 11. It’s a provocative and brow-furrowing slice of history that eschews easy answers, far more so than its predecessor.
Two years ago in BYT, I wrote that All the Way, written by Robert Schenkkan and directed by Kyle Donnelly, was biting off more than it could chew. In trying to tell so much of the past at once, that play necessitates characters who stand there and explain their motivations, deliver exposition like it’s news reports, and generally pontificate in ways it’s difficult to imagine their real-life counterparts doing.
The Great Society, also written by Schenkkan and directed by Donnelly, corrects that problem. It tackles the Voting Rights Act, the social safety net, the Selma march, the Chicago race riots, the Vietnam War, and the election of ’68, but it doesn’t try to present the definitive version of any of those events; it depicts them glancingly, as part of a messy, tumbling whole that kept LBJ from seeking re-election. Martin Luther King Jr., Lady Bird Johnson, and, hell, even J. Edgar Hoover come off more as people here than textbook cut-outs come to life.
Even more impressive: Arena got (most of) the band back together! Jack Willis returns to the lead roll of the nation’s 36th president, chewing on that Texas accent like a big piece of jerky. Also back for seconds are our Gov. George Wallace (Cameron Folmar delights in his southern-accented villain), King Jr. (Bowman Wright plays both man and myth), Hoover (Richmond Hoxie climbs right into the 20th century’s most twisted law enforcement mind) and Lady Bird (Susan Rome thankfully has more to do this time out). None of these performances felt lacking in the slightest, and welcome additions come in the form of Deonna Bouye’s Coretta Scott King and Andrew Weems’s Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.
I’m equally glad Nan Cibula-Jenkins returned to do the costumes. These look like outfits people in the 1960s would truly wear, not styles meant to simulate them.
It’s not hard to imagine why the typical theatregoer would be interested in LBJ nostalgia right now: He was a liberal who passed sweeping reforms but oversaw an unpopular, victory-free war and was ultimately succeeded in office by a conservative perhaps most famous for his struggles with his own Justice Department.
Two moments in particular resonate with 2018 America. The one that comes second is clumsy and artless and I’d cut it from the show with a bone-saw if they asked my opinion: Nixon, in the Oval Office, says he wants to make America great again. Boo. But one earlier in the show hits home: Johnson is commiserating with his vice president on one of many dark nights. Nixon can talk about “law and order” all he wants, LBJ says, we all know what he’s really saying: Let’s keep people of color down.
Indeed, The Great Society does not depict the late ’60s as a free-love liberal utopia. Vietnam quickly spirals out of control, and, of course, American racism hasn’t gone anywhere. Backdrop screens use stock footage and grim statistics to show the world closing in on the Johnson White House. Riot scenes feel more stagey than visceral, but there is a neat Molotov cocktail effect. The story practially comes across in a series of chants. There’s “Black Power!” There’s “White Power!” And, of course, the cruelest political rhyme to ever smack of truth: “Hey, Hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”
The Fichandler Stage’s in-the-round space is a tough one to hold, but hold it Willis does, both in monologues about his hard-scrabble past and in sparring scenes with others.
A powerful, if very blunt, visual metaphor comes in the second half of act 2. As Johnson is composing one of many, many letters to the families of fallen troops, we watch an American soldier dragging the corpse of one of his comrades in a circle around the distraught president, leaving a bright red ring of blood around the Oval Office and presidential seal. It stays there for the rest of the play.