Play Captures Tumult of Civil Rights Era

Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston tackles LBJ, just one of the searing portrayals featured in All the Way.

Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way (Evgenia Eliseeva/American Repertory Theater)
Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way (Evgenia Eliseeva/American Repertory Theater)

(The Root) — The national celebrations and commemorations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington have, once again, marked race as a subject of exploration in popular culture. The recent critical and commercial success of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which offered an epic cinematic depiction of the civil rights movement’s heroic period, has underscored this point.

This past summer’s racial discontent, which featured roiling protests that compelled President Obama to publicly address racial injustice, seems to have primed audiences to embrace America’s complicated racial past. In addition to The Butler, Hollywood’s fall movie lineup features the much-anticipated Twelve Years a Slave, based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man forced into slavery during the 19th century, and Long Walk to Freedom, a biopic of Nelson Mandela, both of which are already receiving Oscar buzz.

Race is attracting critical attention in American theaters, too: The play All the Way examines the pivotal year from Nov. 22, 1963, to election night on Nov. 3, 1964, when the accidental president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, placed his indelible stamp on American history and national race relations. Staged at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., the production offers one of theater’s most historically complex and artistically satisfying depictions of the civil rights era. 

President John F. Kennedy’s shocking assassination marked beginnings and endings in American history, which All the Way explores in a manner that is at once sprawling and concise. The pivotal historical moments between the Kennedy assassination and Johnson’s election are all recounted: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s 1964 summer project, destined to be remembered as Freedom Summer, which was punctuated by the martyrdom of three civil rights workers in Mississippi; Johnson’s efforts to hold the South in the wake of the Mississippi Freedom Party’s challenge to unseat the segregated white delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J.; Fannie Lou Hamer’s riveting televised testimony to the credentials committee that threatened to undo Johnson’s election plans; Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins and other civil rights leaders’ efforts to push a comprehensive civil rights act that would include voting-rights protection; and finally, Johnson’s herculean efforts to use the crisis of Kennedy’s assassination to pass watershed legislation, consolidate the Democratic Party and legitimize his own presidency.

The narrative arc pivots around Johnson, played by Emmy Award-winning Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston, and the social, political and racial forces that shaped his first tumultuous year in office. Cranston’s LBJ is, like the historical Johnson, a man of enormous appetites, ego and snake-oil charm. Johnson’s ability to cajole, threaten and plead his way into swaying even long-standing political opponents is rendered with subtlety and precision.

King, NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins, SNCC activists Stokely Carmichael and Bob Moses and Mississippi Freedom Party leader Hamer come to life in a historical reimagining that expertly outlines the brutal and often messy nature of American democracy during the 1960s.

All the Way’s villains include FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Alabama Gov. George Wallace and a coterie of Southern Dixiecrat politicians whose gleeful racism serves as a sort of Greek chorus to the various proceedings.

The play’s chief strength is its ability to convey the way in which all politics is deeply personal. The characters of King, Wilkins, Young, Carmichael and Moses are wonderfully animated in a powerful scene that illustrates the generational tensions between the pragmatic Wilkins, the dignified King and the young firebrands of SNCC. Hamer, a sharecropper-turned-activist and one of the movement’s unsung heroes, is given an eloquent and moving portrayal by Crystal A. Dickinson. 

Scenes featuring black icons of the civil rights struggle lend the impression that one is eavesdropping on the actual private dialogue of Carmichael, Wilkins and King (well acted by William Jackson Harper, Peter Jay Fernandez and Brandon J. Dirden respectively). It’s a testament to playwright Robert Schenkkan’s keen eye for historical detail that the play’s high point occurs away from the White House and LBJ.