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)

It happens instead in Mississippi, at the funeral of Freedom Summer martyr James Chaney. Dave Dennis, a young CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) leader, gives a eulogy for the slain activist (who died along with white activists Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman) that is fueled by outrage and grief. Eric Lenox Abrams (who doubles, less effectively, as Bob Moses) gives a passionate and accurate rendering of Dennis’ grief, standing in the back of the theater and howling in rage and bitterness that, at the preview performance I attended, had much of the audience in stunned silence.

All the Way is particularly impressive in the way it humanizes Johnson, one of America’s most important presidents, by offering an intimate portrait of the political worlds (including some of which he was only barely aware or concerned about) that shaped him. Born and raised in Texas Hill Country, Johnson escaped humble roots to become a New Dealer who, even as a congressman and Senate majority leader, never abandoned his dreams of assisting underdogs.

Yet despite his empathy for the poor, Johnson was a product of the Jim Crow South who casually used the n-word in private for much of his life. This Janus-faced personality made him a cunning adversary, one whose chameleonlike ability helped make him, for a time, at least, a man who could win the confidence of segregationist Democrats and civil rights leaders such as King.

The play ends with Johnson at his moment of triumph, exulting in the landslide victory over Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater that, if only for a moment, satisfied the new president’s insatiable need for admiration and approval. The disappointments blazed by the Vietnam War, racial backlash and urban riots are far off in the distance. It’s a credit to Cranston’s incisive portrayal that one is left hopeful, as if witnessing for the first time the story of Johnson’s, and the country’s, political fate.

All the Way, which closes Oct. 12, is an important contribution to a national conversation about race and democracy that is happening in America. It exemplifies why talking about race and American history is so vital to the future of democracy and movements for racial equality and economic justice.

Ultimately, in its evocative and multidimensional rendering of a key chapter in the civil rights era’s heroic period, All the Way reminds us of the stakes of political transformation when millions of lives are in the balance. The production’s flesh-and-blood approach to the confrontations, disputes, heartbreak and successes of the civil rights struggle offers a hopeful and much-needed corrective to the mainstream remembrances that threaten to mythologize the era and its heroes, as well as to a contemporary political dysfunction that makes us long for a past when Americans seemed capable of doing the impossible.

Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.