By Bill Woods
How did the Civil Rights Act of 1964 become the law of the land? A play performed by the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (January 24th to February 15th) vividly tells the story of how this law got enacted during this turbulent year. "All The Way" by Robert Schenkkan takes playgoers back to 1964, and it portrays the actions and words of the major people involved in bringing about this important piece of legislation.
The play begins with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, an event that suddenly elevated Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to the Presidency. It then follows Johnson and others around him as political and public policy decisions are made leading up to the Civil Rights Act and the Presidential election. Although Schenkkan focuses primarily on President Johnson and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Senator Hubert Humphrey, FBI Director Herbert Hoover, Governor George Wallace, and other Civil Rights leaders and elected officials are also portrayed.
The play manages to capture the turbulence of 1964. The Civil Rights movement had reached a point where certain young African-Americans were challenging Martin Luther King and other older leaders for not acting forcefully enough. Politically the country was still reeling after Kennedy's assassination, and certain Southern politicians such as Governor George Wallace of Alabama were emerging as would-be saviors of segregation.
Enter the new President, Lyndon Johnson. Picked as the Vice Presidential candidate in 1960 to balance the ticket, Johnson was largely ignored by Kennedy's inner circle. However, he had previously served as the Majority Leader of the Senate, and his skills as an insider who knew how to pass laws were of immediate and immense value when he became President. Much of the play focuses on Johnson's effective behind the scenes negotiations and maneuvers to get the Civil Rights Act through both Houses of Congress.
Jim Hopkins ,who played the role of Johnson in the play, ably captured the complexity of this man. A bigger than life personality, the President possessed a large ego and also some insecurities. Although he could be both manipulative and crude, his values led him to work for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and legislation that became known as "the War on Poverty." Schenkkan's dialogue and Hopkins' skillful acting managed to capture all these factors at work in the President's day-to-day activities.
The facet captured in this play that often gets overlooked is that Johnson, a Texan, was considered the first Southern President since the Civil War. As a former Majority Leader of the Senate, he had many Senator colleagues representing southern states, and this fact proved to be helpful in steering the Civil Rights Act through this body. He was able to successfully negotiate with them, and he gave them a few wins like removing the voting rights portion of the proposed bill (passed a year later as the Voting Rights Act). His wheeling and dealing managed to prevent the usual Senate filibuster against Civil Rights legislation. By the end of the process, many Southerners felt betrayed by the President, and he correctly predicted that the passage of this Act would launch the beginning of the end for the solid Democratic South.
The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is blessed with a strong troupe of actors. Besides the sterling performance of Jim Hopkins as Johnson, many CSC-actors skillfully portrayed the diverse public figures involved in the events of this play. In fact, fifteen of them played multiple roles.
'All The Way' was written and first performed for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012 as part of its series entitled "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle." The winner of numerous awards, the play had a run on Broadway in 2014. Its success can be attributed to the way it brings to life warts and all an important time in our history. It gives us hope during this rather bleak moment that it is possible for politicians to overcome their weaknesses and do the right thing.