LBJ meets MLK at the Hoogland
“This ain’t about the Constitution. This is about those who got more, wantin’ to hang on to what they got, at the expense of those who got nothing.’ And feel good about it.” – President Lyndon Baines Johnson, discussing opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, from All the Way by Robert Schenkkan
After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Vice President Lyndon Johnson of Texas was thrust into the presidency with less than one year until the next national election. The tumultuous period between Kennedy’s death and Johnson’s 1964 electoral victory provides the timeframe for All the Way, a play by Robert Schenkkan making its regional debut at the Hoogland Center for the Arts on Friday, March 2. It is an ambitious, explosive production the likes of which may not have been seen on a Springfield stage before.
The tumultuous 11 months covered in the play’s two brisk acts find Johnson, portrayed by veteran Springfield actor and director Rich McCoy, steadfastly working to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, playing a tense balancing act between congressional Republicans and Democrats while simultaneously negotiating with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.(played by Tony Young) and other civil rights leaders – in the process risking the loss of his traditional backers in the South. The result is a high-stakes drama with both historical significance and unexpected resonance with today’s social and political landscape, with many of the concerns dramatized in the play’s civil rights struggle finding echoes in current arguments regarding immigration reform and groups like Black Lives Matter. There is also plenty of ribald humor, mostly emanating from the character of Johnson, a man who oozed “political incorrectness” long before the phrase came into popular use.
The play’s director, longtime area theater fixture Phil Funkenbusch, was a fan of All the Way from the time the play was first published in book form in 2012. “I was interested in it just because Robert Schenkkan is an interesting writer,” he said, mentioning his fondness for the author’s earlier work. All the Way eventually enjoyed a successful run on Broadway, garnering the 2014 Best Actor Tony Award for “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston, who played LBJ. A chance to see a production of All the Way at the Repertory Theater in St. Louis in 2015 cemented Funkenbusch’s determination to eventually direct a version of the play in Springfield. “I was blown away by it, how it moved,” he said. “I immediately thought of Rich McCoy – I thought he could play the part of LBJ. I’d seen him in a couple of plays the last few years and he was really good.”
Not long after that, Funkenbusch presented a copy of the script to McCoy and the two spoke of the project frequently over the next few years. Eventually, Gus Gordon, executive director of the Hoogland Center for the Arts and a producer of this production, offered them the first two weekends in March to present All the Way (the title derives from Johnson’s 1964 presidential campaign slogan, “All the way with LBJ”). “Everything told me not to do it,” Funkenbusch said. “I didn’t want to do January rehearsals – I’m too old and tired! And I was nervous about getting a big group of people to come and do it – there’s something like 36 speaking parts! It’s ridiculous.” In the end, despite his concerns and the demands of a full schedule as theater director for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Funkenbusch decided to go all the way with All the Way.
Instead of auditions, he organized a series of semiformal readings last fall where he invited people to take on different parts and cast the various roles as he went along. “It’s been interesting and it’s been hard for me,” he said. “This was a difficult piece to direct, I couldn’t just start at Act 1 and go through the play, I had to look at everyone’s schedules and piece together rehearsals, so that’s what we’ve been doing for the past three weeks.”
Funkenbusch decided it would be easier for the actors if they worked on individual scenes, but this approach had its own difficulties, with actors arriving for short, 15- or 20-minute rehearsal appointments, then leaving immediately to make way for the next cluster of performers. “I’m confident that it will come together, though – they’ve done enough work,” Funkenbusch said.
Along with the huge cast orbiting McCoy as the central figure of President Johnson, this production of All the Way promises to be visually distinctive, utilizing back projections, minimal props and stark lighting. The action is fast-paced, structured around short, impactful scenes, some larger set-pieces and a few powerful monologues from Johnson which occasionally approach the level of Shakespearean drama – albeit with a Texas drawl. “I want the acting to be natural, I want it to be real,” Funkenbusch said. “I don’t want acting. And I think this play will lend itself to that.”
“It’s a very dramatic piece,” said Rich McCoy. “I’ve been studying the script since last September.” He acknowledged that January and February tends to be a tough time to get people to commit to rehearsals but said that the All the Way ensemble has been pulling together. “We haven’t had any petty absences – if somebody’s not here it’s because of sickness or something in the family, we’ve been able to keep things rolling pretty well. Phil’s been a master at keeping things scheduled and making sure we can progress on this.”
Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson, an instructor in the University of Illinois Springfield theatre department, plays First Lady Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson. She became involved in the production when Funkenbusch reached out to her. Thibodeaux-Thompson has her Lone Star State bona fides in order. “I grew up in Houston, I lived in Austin and I’ve got family in the hill country so I have that surface knowledge to bring to playing Lady Bird,” she said, mentioning that she had previously known very little about the former First Lady other than the bluebonnets she famously planted throughout Texas and which still grow wild there today. “I think this play might be surprising for audiences,” she said. “On the one hand it is linear but it is still not a traditional, realistic play – it is very cinematic.”
A pivotal figure in the play is that of Martin Luther King, who goes toe-to-toe with Johnson as the Civil Rights Act makes its way through the legislative process. Tony Young – a 30-plus-year acting veteran who works at the Illinois secretary of state’s office and is the vocalist for the versatile local band Baad Boyz – was cast in the plumb part of Dr. King and even in rehearsal brings an impressive gravitas to his scenes. “I’ve worked with Phil Funkenbusch before,” Young said. “It’s an honor to be playing Martin Luther King Jr. This is a phenomenal cast. I want people to come see the show with an open mind and know that they will learn from this production. It has humor as well as great wit.”
“We live in the world Lyndon Johnson created...All of the issues that we fight about covertly and overtly have their genesis in that time.” – All the Way author Robert Schenkkan, quoted in New Republic
“One thing the play makes clear is that this was an age where, if you wanted to get things done, you had to be willing to compromise and work together,” said McCoy, referring to Johnson’s constant, intense negotiations with both Democrats and Republicans throughout the play. “It’s something we just don’t see anymore in national politics and that absence is what has gridlocked our country.” McCoy marveled at the breadth of accomplishments Johnson achieved during the first few years of his presidency, many of which have been overlooked and obscured by his handling of the Vietnam War. “There was the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid and NPR and lots more, all because he was able to get the Senate Republicans to compromise on certain things.”
“It seems like every single night, at every rehearsal, there’s a point where we all look at each other and somebody says, ‘This is happening today,’” said Funkenbusch. “Some of these scenes, like one where Stokely Carmichael is talking about white police officers, are almost spooky. Also, people these days don’t really know LBJ. He is so crass. While we were rehearsing, someone said he’d never get elected today. Then everyone laughed.”
“So much of this is making our heads spin,” agreed Thibodeaux-Thompson, referring to how the racist and discriminatory rhetoric coming out of the southern politicians’ mouths in the play resembles language emerging from the “alt-right” and other neo-conservative groups active today. “There’s a lot of, ‘What year is this? What the holy crap?’”
“Right now, I believe that our country is going through a lot of change,” said Young. “Sometimes it seems as though we are rolling back history – and as a nation we need to be careful of that. The timing for this play couldn’t be better. I think the community is going to be able to receive a great message from it.”
“Stand up for Truth and lo, I will be with you even until the end of the world.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“All the actors are working hard, doing the back story on their characters so we understand who these people were,” said McCoy, pointing out that All the Way is something of an historical pageant, because none of the characters are fictional. “They’re all historical men and women and we need to understand their desires and motives. I was in sixth grade when Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson became president so that was during my formative years. This is a character I’ve grown up with, one way or another.”
“LBJ was so difficult,” said Funkenbusch. “He was not the nicest guy you were going to ever meet and I keep telling Rich that he cannot be soft in this role.” In preparation for the play, Funkenbusch re-read the portion of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, the multi-volume biography of Johnson by Robert Caro, dealing in detail with the first year of the Johnson presidency.
“A friend of mine who has played LBJ in this show elsewhere got me a book called The Texas White House, which has some great stuff about the Johnsons and their relationship,” said Thibodeaux-Thompson. “They had only been dating for seven weeks or so when they got married – they met in the summer and got married in November, which is crazy.” The biggest challenge in playing Lady Bird, she said, was the way that she is portrayed as loyally absorbing the president’s often nasty verbal treatment of her. “It’s bizarre, to our modern mindset,” she said. “There’s an almost cliché sense of ‘stand by your man’ there but at the same time, she had put up the money for his very first campaign [for Congress, shortly after their marriage in the mid-1930s]. There’s a sense that LBJ did reluctantly rely on her – though I don’t think he would ever have openly admitted that.”
“At the time all this was taking place, I was four and five years old,” said Tony Young. “My family was living on the edge of their seats [regarding the passage of the Civil Rights Act]. But as shown in this play, the fact that LBJ decided to take up the mantle and continue that fight [for the Civil Rights Act] is absolutely unbelievable. In a time when it was not the most popular thing to do, he knew it was the thing that had to be done.” Young said the scenes of Dr. King interacting with his fellow civil rights movement leaders are among the most galvanizing and exciting moments for him. “There is such a great gathering of humanity, so much tension in that group, and they are all trying to represent the people.” Young also said that his scenes with Rich McCoy’s LBJ could be daunting. “Rich is a formidable LBJ,” he said, “but I think for the two of us, portraying these leaders of their time, our goal has been to make sure the people understand it was a very tense situation but they both have respect for each other.”
There is also a personal reason Young felt it was important to take part in this particular production. “LBJ personally awarded my family the Medal of Honor for my uncle who was killed in Vietnam,” he said. Young’s uncle, Milton Lee Olive III (Nov. 7, 1946 – Oct. 22, 1965), known to the family as “Uncle Skipper,” was the first African-American to receive the Medal of Honor from the Vietnam War. “If you look it up, you can see LBJ awarding it to my family,” Young said.
All the Way will run at the Hoogland Center for the Arts, 420 S. Sixth St. in Springfield, for six performances, on Friday and Saturday March 2, 3, 9 and 10 at 7:30 p.m. with matinees on Sunday March 4 and 11 at 2 p.m. For tickets and further information, visit http://www.hcfta.org or call 217-523-2787.
Scott Faingold can be reached at sfaingold @illinoistimes.com