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With LBJ

All the Way  at the American Reparatory Theater is a play that sits in the middle of an entire series of plays based on American history. These plays take a note out of Shakespeare’s book to tell a story through the history of a nation. Though this series is not yet complete, the thesis behind it suggests that this series would be the American equivalent to Shakespeare’s history plays with each story leading into the next.

One of the challenges that meets All the Way is the audience’s presumptions of the characters present in history. The audience comes into the plays with an assumption of historical characters (often caricatures) and political views of how these characters should behave. The key to making these plays effective is to understand where exactly the audience is coming from and play on these assumptions.

The two characters that All the Way transforms against audience expectations are Martin Luther King, Jr. and J. Edgar Hoover. Both of these historical figures come with the baggage of audience expectation; Martin Luther King, Jr. as the powerful hero of the Civil Rights Movement and J. Edgar Hoover as a demonized federal agent invading the privacy of America. However, the key to understanding this play is seeing where our expectations cause friction with the characters presented by the author and the actors. King then becomes a man who has to sacrifice some of his principles to make political headway, and Hoover becomes a man whose ambition could be somewhat justified and motivated.

But the big question still looms over this article is “So what?” What does it matter that these characters are humanized in front of us?

From a historical standpoint, the subjects tend to be glossed over and turned into something separate from what they were. American history has glorified figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King. In doing so, the struggle from their personas are removed and they become this transcendental figure.

American Presidents are especially subject to this treatment. They are remembered for what they did, what was happening, and how they responded. The President is not remembered for the means for their actions. LBJ tends to be remembered for his Civil Rights activism/law reform and the Vietnam War, but the conversation does not revolve around how these actions came to pass; for example, the interpersonal conversations that LBJ manipulated to pass his legislation.

The play, and the entire series that All the Way is a part of, reminds us that these are people, with real obstacles, and real challenges.

Shakespeare’s historical plays serve the same function and behave in the same manner  with the audiences of his time. However, at this time, All the Way stands out as having content in living memory. What could spark a better conversation than the memory of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Or of Fannie Lou Hamer’s interrupted testimony?

The real key here though is the success that Robert Schenkkan and the actors have in breaking the molds cast upon them by the audience.

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