“All the Way” Proves the Power of Art to Change Minds and Hearts
I was blown away by the LBJ play, “All the Way,” staged recently at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan and directed by the Rep’s own Steven Woolf, the play depicts how President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were able to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.
The play was all I’d expected and more. Brian Dykstra was amazing as the committed, cunning, calculating, yet vulnerable, LBJ. (No wonder Bryan Cranston won a Tony in the Broadway version.) And Avery Glymph embodied the reasoned, passionate and pragmatic Dr. King, and how he dealt with the various factions within the Civil Rights movement at the time.
What’s sad is that too many people today, young and not-so-young, don’t realize how long the odds were against passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, later, the Voting Rights Act. Say what you will about the man—his Vietnam War blunder notwithstanding—no one but LBJ could have worked the magic he did to push through these two critical pieces of legislation.
Those who didn’t live through those times don’t realize how structurally racist the country was. In many states, African-Americans were outright blocked from voting. Those states also had laws stating that only registered voters could serve on juries, which were nearly all white and often resulted in unfair trials (e.g., Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird). And typically who held political office? Sometimes outright segregationists.
A Learning Experience
During the intermission, I observed a high school-age African-American girl sitting near me looking shocked at what she had seen and heard. And that was just Act One. The murder of the three Freedom Riders, a local African-American, James Earl Chaney from Meridian, Mississippi, and two Jewish New York college students, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, who went to Mississippi to register African-American voters, wasn’t even portrayed until Act Two.
After the final curtain, I noticed the girl again, this time appearing lost in thought, as if having gained a better understanding of Civil Rights history.
But we still have a ways to go, don’t we?
Turning to leave after the roaring standing ovation, a somewhat bewildered older (white) woman seated near me asked me, “Didn’t the Fourteenth Amendment already give blacks the right to vote?” I tried to explain about intelligence tests and other subterfuges that kept African-Americans from registering as voters in the South. This woman lived through the whole Civil Rights struggle and wasn’t even aware that African-Americans were blocked from voting! She said she was going home to research the whole matter.
Her determination to learn about the issue proves the power of theatre, and the arts in general, to affect people’s minds and hearts. I hope my novel, The Lies That Bind (TouchPoint Press, November 2015), a twisted tale of intrigue in the antebellum South, does that as well. Given the story’s time and place, naturally, race—as well as gender and class—are important elements in the novel.
In The Lies That Bind, a fugitive charlatan and a group of slaves stranded in the Mississippi wilds secretly agree to build their own egalitarian plantation. Right there, many of the old Southern myths and stereotypes about slaves come crashing down, as we hear these African-American partners say what they really think.
And that’s just the beginning, as Lies builds up steam. Soon afterward this unique alliance threatens to expose long-buried secrets that could bring down the powerful family that controls the town, the Frenches: a likely mad, reclusive matriarch and her crazed heir apparent.
Watch for the November release of The Lies That Bind!