‘The Great Society,’ by Robert Schenkkan, Starring Brian Cox, Richard Thomas, A Triumphant Reminder of an Adult President
Lyndon Baines Johnson became president in a landslide vote in 1964. The wheeler dealer of the senate as Democratic Majority leader who could count votes and get bills passed, came from a hard scrabble childhood. He witnessed his father devastated by broken dreams. But President Johnson despite his crude ways, ferocious wit and uber competitiveness had the people of the nation at heart. Cramped and curtained as President Kennedy’s poor ‘ole boy, shunt ’em to the side Vice President, taking the reins of power after Kennedy’s death in 1963, President Johnson accomplished the impossible. He did what Kennedy hoped to do but couldn’t; he got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.
In Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award winning All The Way, LBJ is a man of destiny and reckoning. Played by Bryan Cranston who won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play, we follow the 36th president through passage of that iconic Civil Rights Act to his election campaigning. It was an amazing journey considering the obstacles of bigotry, racism and the obstructions by the Southern Democrats. Schenkkan’s play concludes with Johnson riding high on his success of the Civil Rights Triumph and his election win as the full term 36th president of the United States.
Directed by Bill Rauch who helmed All the Way, Schenkkan’s sequel, The Great Society is equally majestic in its revelations about Johnson as one who greatly desired to bring Franklin Roosevelt’s ideas of a more prosperous nation into being. With Johnson this was an obsession which Brian Cox realizes authoritatively and sensitively. As Cox’s Johnson lays out the policies of “the great society,” Schenkkan includes quotes from Johnson’s speeches where he affirms the principles of the constitution regarding economic equality, voting rights and other essential American freedoms.
What a joy to hear Cox’s superb delivery of Johnson’s own words. This is especially so in our time when the current president has laid siege to our election freedoms, demeaned freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and abrogated checks and balances with monarchic pronouncements and behaviors that as president, he can do “anything he wants,” and lift “presidential” criminality to new heights with impunity and the assistance of William Barr head of the Department of Justice. In The Great Society, the portrayal of Cox’ Johnson is a poignant reminder that there was a time in our history, when consensus between Republicans and Democrats could be reached. The play reminds us that Johnson knew how to compromise and work toward legislation that would improve the lives of American citizens. Above all he was an adult, he cared about those who were economically disadvantaged, he loathed racism, yet understood how to get his opponents on his side.
The arc of the play’s development chronicles Johnson’s four year term during which the country roiled with upheavals and protests that represented the raging tide of times. Schenkkan unfolds events from the mountaintop of Johnson’s win to his struggles through passage and implementation of the Voting Rights Act. Schenkkan reveals Johnson’s relationships with Civil Rights leaders from Ralph Abernathy to Stokley Carmichael to Martin Luther King Jr. to conflicts with Robert Kennedy and Governor George Wallace.
The actors who portray these celebrated individuals do an excellent job. Most acute and colorful in the development of their relationships with Cox’s Johnson are Grantham Coleman as Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Marchant Davis as Stokely Carmichael. Some of the most dynamic segments of the play are Johnson’s confrontations with Martin Luther King Jr. and the other iconic black activists to insure that blacks would be able to register and vote without being lynched or beaten. Dynamic arguments with all the important high stakes players move like a riptide as Johnson negotiates and spars with Martin Luther King Jr. (Grantham Coleman) Stokely Carmichael (Marchant Davis) Governor George Wallace (David Garrison) Robert Kennedy (Bryce Pinkham) Senator Everett Dirksen (Frank Wood) Richard J. Daley-Mayor of Chicago (Marc Kudisch )and others. Often at his side is Hubert Humphrey (the fine Richard Thomas) who serves as a counsel to him and could be looked upon loosely as his friend, a generosity not given to Johnson by the Kennedys when he was Vice President.
Identifying searing events, (via video projections and archived photos, the “Bloody Sunday” march on Selma, Alabama, “Turnaround Tuesday” march, the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the Chicago protests, the Watts riots, etc.) Schenkkan reveals how Johnson attempted to balance all the invested players and handle the black – white unrest. With the Watts riots, he eventually brought in the California National Guard.
Brian Cox demonstrates Johnson’s forcefulness, vigor, passion and rationality with regard to his positions on civil rights and with regard to bringing in key influencers for other programs, like Dr. James Z. Appel (Marc Kudisch) head of the American Medical Association. Under Johnson’s term, medicare and medicaid were created and passed into law.
Interesting are his exchanges with Robert Kennedy portrayed with privileged aloofness and irony by Bryce Pinkham. The tensions between them are obvious and stem back from Johnson’s Vice Presidency. When Johnson is not surprised that Kennedy is looking to run in 1968, we understand his humorous reaction to that news. Kennedy uses Johnson as his bête noire on the war to gather support for his platform and candidacy. It is an ironic moment considering his brother was the first to send troops over to Viet Nam. The irony of this and horror of the Robert Kennedy assassination is shown representational style; Johnson’s reaction is telling.
If Johnson’s greatness as a president was in the passage of forward legislation to improve all of the citizens’ lives, Schennkan reveals the greatness is undone by his “Waterloo,” the Viet Nam War. Based on reports from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Matthew Rauch) and head of U.S. forces in Viet Nam General William Westmoreland (Bryan Dykstra) Cox as Johnson shows the president’s mettle as he wrangles with the notion that the war will stop the spread of communism. Listening to them, he escalates troop deployments and engages in the bombing of North Viet Nam. These are steps on the road to the nation’s infamy.
On a backdrop projection periodically listed are the ever increasing numbers of American dead and wounded. Indeed, as Johnson battles the two main issues of the day, civil rights and the war, we note that he, himself, is fighting his own war with himself whether more bloodshed will be useful or a travesty. We hear the rationale for escalation as we note the figures expand and rise up as protestors march and individual protestors represented by Quaker minister Norman Morrison (David Garrison) immolate themselves. (Buddhist monks also set themselves on fire to protest the war).
For those unfamiliar with this time in history, Schenkkan relays events with meticulous and accurate detail. Clearly, he identifies the seminal themes and concepts from which we still feel the impact today evidenced by the numbers of homeless Vets and suicides from that generation. We shudder as we witness Cox as Johnson be persuaded by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and General William Westmoreland knowing the numbers will continue to rise and behind each number is a family in mourning. Letters Johnson writes to families in condolence become a devastating scene. Schenkkan evidences Johnson’s turmoil which ironically reflects the growing divisiveness in the country. Money spent on the war and defense contractors could have been spent on his social programs which must be curtailed to make the budget. Johnson is stuck between a rock and a hard place with nowhere to go but the abyss, Schenkkan reveals.
An important feature of this production is in how the playwright and the director and ensemble coalesce our history with salient, acute representational actions that become a mentorship in what an adult president can be like. This reminds us of what we do not have today. Cox’s Johnson reveals a president who had the temerity not to seek re-election but wanted to extract himself from the rat wheel of the killing fields of Southeast Asia during a horror that fomented protests, divided his country and party. And it was particularly grating for him to hear college students’ chants, “Hey, Johnson what do ya say, how many kids did you kill today?”The words hit home because he knew they were true. He bore up under it badly remembering a time when he was popular and not despised.
Rather that to be elected for four more years, which he would have won, he stops and hands the opportunity to Hubert Humphrey. We laugh at his humor and the irony of what happened next: Richard Nixon (played by David Garrison). A key point in this production, look for it, reveals Nixon’s hunger for the presidency so that he put himself before the country and our soldiers. Treasonously, deceitfully Nixon upended the ongoing negotiations for peace with North Viet Nam by making an arrangement that peace would be accomplished after he got in office. Cox’s Johnson ironically nails him for this when Nixon comes in to assert himself in the Oval Office, even before he is inaugurated. The parallel to today in how the Trumpists were making quid pro quo deals even before they took the reins of power is clear.
When Johnson stated he would not run again and posed the reasons, what many believed would be better for the country, actually was worse, especially since Nixon stalled the peace negotiations with North Viet Nam, something that Johnson had believed in throughout his bombing policy. But a worse than Johnson took office and the implication in the play is that Johnson knew this as Cox portrays ironically when Nixon comes to visit before the transfer of power. In one of the most dramatic scenes Cox pulls out all stops to deliver Johnson’s ringing words: “I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes. . . . Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” The ramifications of this in Nixon getting in, the country has paid for ever since.
Interestingly, Schekkan, Rauch, Cox and the ensemble reinforce American values, exemplified by what Johnson attempted in his plan for “the great society.” These values which Johnson fought hard to uphold against those like Governor George Wallace, Southern Democrats and Southern law enforcement whose bigotry Johnson understood, countermanded, and decried, become reinforced as the gold standard of the nation. Johnson was capable of dialogue with those who disagreed with him. And he was capable of bringing them to his side to realize and bring us closer to the tenets of the constitution and a “more perfect union,” if even for a time until the war upended the fullness of his efforts. The production uplifts these characteristics of Johnson as a patriotic American. And it indelibly reinforces this greatness as that which we must embrace if we are to define ourselves as a nation of equal opportunity for all.
Finally, The Great Society has special import for us because what Johnson attempted was actually supported in a bi-partisan effort. Johnson not only looked out for the well being of the poor and the uneducated regardless of race or creed, he had the negotiating power and skill to bring his dreams into reality. He understood congress, and with his landslide victory, was able to bring many liberal Democrats with him to establish a foundation by which his social programs could be instituted and funded. He declared a “war on poverty” and attempted to eliminate institutional racial injustice. If not for the vicissitudes of the Viet Nam War, who knows what else may have been accomplished?
With passion, ingeniousness determination and sociability, Johnson attempted the impossible and managed to push through the most sweeping civil rights legislation and other legislation that benefited whole swaths of the nation which are still in practice today though Republican white supremacists continue to erode the Voting Rights Act with gerrymandering and strictures at polling places.
Cox authentically portrays Johnson with grace, humor, vitality and power. His masterful performance is an illumination which we need especially now.
The sum total of the benefits the 36th president brought to this nation (including the 25th Amendment) is laudatory. He also was driven into a war from which it has been impossible to recover. For that and other reasons he did not want to continue as president. Again, admirable. Importantly, the play reminds us that presidents and politicians do have the ability to stand for all of the people and to push for equal opportunity for the betterment of the general good. That used to be a value of this nation, a sign of patriotism, Americanism, something to strive for. How this current administration has strayed from those values with the help of the Trumpists and big money is earth-shattering. Schenkkan’s The Great Society is a warning we must not allow this erosion of democracy to continue.
The theme of this production is an imperative, and uplifting for us in these times. For this reason, the portrayals, the historical details and the crafting of events, Schenkkan’s portrayal of Johnson, beautifully delivered by Cox as a president of cultural hope and justice is a must see.
Special kudos to the design team. The projections, the archived photos and videos were well done. the scenic design melded well with the lighting. As for the costume design, yes, that is really how folks dressed! Notice, no red ties. Calling out: David Korins (scenic design) Linda Cho (costume design) David Weiner (lighting design) Victoria Sagady (projection design) Paul James Prendergast and Marc Salzbert (sound design) Paul James Prendergast (music).
From Emilio Sosa’s vibrant costumes to Beowulf Boritt’s impeccable set design (a landscape of roses, luscious, ripe-for-the-plucking peaches on the Georgia peach tree, the luxuriant front lawn, the Georgian-styled, two-story mansion-representative of an orderly, harmonious, idyllic world) this update of Much Ado About Nothing resonates as an abiding Shakespearean classic. Director Kenny Leon’s vision for the comedy with threads of tragedy evokes a one-of-a-kind production with currency and moment. This is especially so as we challenge the noxious onslaught of Trumpism’s war on democratic principles, our constitution and the rule of law.
Directed with a studied reverence for eternal verities, Leon, with the help of his talented ensemble, carve out valuable takeaways. They focus on key elements that gem-like, reflect beauty and truth in Shakespeare’s characterizations, conflicts and themes. By the conclusion of the profound, spectacular evening of delight, of sorrow, and of laughter, we are uplifted. As we walk out into a shadowy Central Park, our minds and hearts have been inspired to shutter fear and cloak our souls against siren calls that would lure us from reason into irrational insentience and hatred.
Kenny Leon has chosen for his setting a wealthy black neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia, whose Lord of the realm, Leonato (Chuck Cooper’s prodigious, comedic and stentorian acting talents are on full display) shows his political persuasion with prominent signs on the front and side of his house that read, “Stacey Abrams 2020.” The impressive “Georgian-style” mansion which could be out of East Egg, the upper class setting of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is ironic with the addition of its advocating support for Abrams.
With this particular set piece, we note Leon’s comment on black progress toward a sustained economic prosperity amidst a backdrop of oppression, if one considers the chicanery that happened during Abrams’ run for the 2018 gubernatorial election. It also is reminiscent of the house of the racist, misogynistic villain of Gatsby, the arrogant, presumptuous Tom Buchannan and other such elites (i.e. wealthy conservatives) who give no thought to destroying “people and things” of the underclasses with their policies. Yet Lord Leonato and his friends and relatives are not turned away from justice and empathy for others. This the director highlights through this Shakespearean update whose characters seek justice and truth and encourage each other to abide in kindness, love and forgiveness.
Leon approaches his vision of justice through love by weaving in songs and music. At the outset Leon incorporates such music with a refrain sung by Beatrice (the inimitable Danielle Brooks):
“Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying, brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying. You know we’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.”
As Beatrice finishes the refrain by asking “What’s happening?” her ensemble of friends which include Hero (Margaret Odette), Margaret (Olivia Washington) and Ursula (Tiffany Denise Hobbs) sing the patriotic ballad “America the Beautiful” as a prayer and inspiration for the country to follow its ideals of “brotherhood from sea to shining sea.” This is not a war-like unction, it a solicitation for peace and goodness. Clearly, the women importune God to “shed His grace” on America. One infers their feeling as an imperative for political and social change hoped for, in a true democracy which can guarantee economic equality and justice.
The arrangement of “America the Beautiful” is lyrical and soulfully harmonious. As the women sing this anointed version they transform the text from hackneyed cliche, long abandoned by politicos and wealthy Federalist Society adherents, and uplift it with profound meaning. They encourage us toward authentically pursuing justice, brotherhood and unity in love and grace, elements which are sorely tried during the central focus of Much Ado About Nothing during Hero’s unjust slander and infamy until she receives vindication.
After the women finish singing, the men march in from the wars. Instead of arms, they carry protest signs decrying hate, uplifting love, proclaiming the right of democracy. Instead of a warlike manner they are calm. The theme of justice and the imperative for political and social brotherhood prayed for in the previous song is reaffirmed as we understand what the “soldiers” are fighting for. In Leon’s genius it is a spiritual warfare, a battle for the soul of American democracy. Leonato appreciates their endeavors and invites them to stay with him for one month to be refreshed and gain strength before they go back out for another skirmish against the forces of darkness.
The music and songs composed by Jason Michael Webb strategically unfold throughout the development of the primary love story between Leonato’s daughter, Hero (the superb Margaret Odette) and family friend Claudio (the excellent Jeremie Harris). And they follow to the conclusion with the funeral and redemption of Hero and her final marriage and dual wedding celebrations with the parallel love story between Beatrice and Benedick. The songs not only illustrate and solidify the themes of love, forgiveness, and the seasons of life, “a time for joy, a time for sorrow,” they unify the friends and family with hope and happiness through dancing and merriment. The melding of the music organically in the various scenes throughout the production is evocative, seamless and just grand.
After the men arrive from their protest, the director cleverly switches gears and the tone moves to one of playful humor and exuberance. With expert comic timing, Brooks’ Beatrice wags about Benedick in a war of sage wits and words. Coleman’s Benedick quips back to her with equal ferocity that belies both potentially have romantic feelings but must circle each other like well-matched competitors enjoying their “war” games as sport. They offer up the perfect foils to a plot their friends later devise using rumor to get Beatrice and Benedick to fall in love with each other in a twisted mix up that is hysterical in its revelations of human pride and ego.
The relationship between Beatrice (the marvelous Danielle Brooks) and Benedick (Grantham Coleman is her equally marvelous suitor and sparring partner) is portrayed with brilliance. The couple serves their delicious comedic fare with great good will and extraordinary fun. Their portrayals provide ballast and drive much of the forward action in the delightful plot events. Danielle Brooks gives a wondrously funny, soulfully witty portrayal. As Benedick, Grantham Coleman is Brooks’ partner in spontaneity, LOL humor, inventiveness and shimmering acuity.
Various interludes in Act I are also a time for male banter about the ladies Hero and Beatrice and the love match with Hero that friend of the family Don Pedro (Billy Eugene Jones) effects for his friend Claudio (Jeremie Harris). The scene between Benedick, Claudio and Don Pedro is superbly wrought with Benedick’s insistence he will remain a bachelor. The audience knows he “doth protest too much” for himself and for Claudio. The pacing of their taunts and jests is expertly rendered. The three actors draw out every bit of humor in Shakespeare’s characterizations.
Into this beauteous garden of delight, exuberance and order creeps the snake Don John (Hubert Point-Du Jour), brother of Don Pedro, and his confidante and friend Conrade (Khiry Walker). Though they support the fight for democracy, Don John is engaged in sub rosa familial warfare. We move from the macrocosm to the microcosm of the human heart which can be a place of extreme wickedness as it is with Don John who quarreled with his brother Don Pedro, his elder and does not forgive him. Don Pedro extended forgiveness and grace to Don John, which Don John feels forced to accept though he is not happy about it. Indeed, he is filled with rancor and seeks revenge, to abuse his brother and anyone near him, if the opportunity presents itself which it does.
The conversation between Conrade and Don John is intriguing for what Shakespeare’s characterizations reveal about the human condition, forgiveness and remorse. Indeed, Don John is reprobate. Whether out of jealousy or the thought that he has done no wrong, he feels bullied to accept his brother’s public forgiveness. The theme “grace bestowed is not grace received unless there is true remorse,” is an important message highlighted by this production through the character of evil Don John who eschews grace. Indeed, extending grace and forgiveness to such individuals is a waste of time. No wonder Don John would rather “be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace.”
Trusting Conrade, Don John admits he is a plain-dealing villain. When he learns of Claudio’s marriage, he plots revenge on Don Pedro by attacking his best friend and smearing Hero’s integrity and fidelity to Claudio. The jealous Claudio is skeptical, but later “proof” during a duplicitous arrangement with an unwitting Margaret, Claudio becomes convinced that Hero is an unfaithful, unchaste philistine.
Claudio’s jealous behavior and immaturity believing Don John turns goodness into another wickedness as evil begets evil. As they stand at the alter Claudio excoriates Hero as an unfit whore to the entire wedding party. Hero, injured unjustly by Don John’s wicked lie and Claudio’s extreme cruelty, collapses. In a classic historical repetition, once again misogyny raises its ugly head and condemns the innocent Hero destroying her once good name. Benedick, the uncanny Friar and Leonato stand with Hero. This key turning point in the production is wrought with great clarity by the actors so that the injustice is believable and it is shocking as injustice always is.
Thankfully, The Friar’s (a fine Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) suggestion to return Hero to grace and redemption in Claudio’s eyes by proclaiming her death to bring her again to a new life is effected with power. Finally, we appreciate a cleric who bestows love not condemnation or a rush to judgment! The emotional tenor of the scene is in perfect balance. Odette and Harris are heartfelt as is Cooper’s Leonato. The scene works in shifting the comedy to tragedy and of uplifting lies believed in as facts with wickedness overcoming love and light. Once again we are reminded that Shakespeare’s greatness is in his timelessness; that if allowed the opportunity for vengeance and evil, humanity will corruptly, wickedly use lies cast as facts to dupe and deceive the gullible, in this case Claudio.
I absolutely adore how the truth comes to light, through the lower classes represented by Dogberry (a hysterical Lateefah Holder) and her assistants who are witnesses to Don John’s accomplices to nefariousness. I also appreciate that all the villains in the work admit their wrongdoing; it is a marvel which doesn’t always occur the higher the ladder of power and ambition one ascends. But this is a comedy with tragic elements, thus, evil is turned to the light and Beatrice and Benedick the principle conveyors of humor are lightening strokes of genius which soothe us to patience until justice arrives right on time.
I also was thrilled to see that the remorseful, apologetic Claudio willingly accepts Hero’s recompense (Leon has Hero dog him in the face) as she unleashes her rage at his unjust treatment. These scenes of redemption and reconciliation ring with authenticity: Cooper, Odette and Harris shine.
The celebrations, masked dance, marriage between Hero and Claudio, Hero’s funeral and the final marriages are staged with exceptional interest and flow; they reveal that each in the ensemble is a key player in the action. The choreography by Camille A. Brown and the fight direction by Thomas Schall are standouts. Kudos also goes to those in the creative team not previously mentioned. Peter Kaczorowski’s gorgeous lighting design conveys romance and subtly of focus during the side scenes; Jessica Paz’s sound design is right on (I heard every word) and Mia Neal for the beautiful wigs, hair and makeup design receives my praise.
Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing is one for the ages. It leaves us with the men doing warfare for the soul of democracy leaving Leonato’s ordered world of right vs. wrong where the right prevails. Once again soldiers fight the good fight and go out to resist and stand against the world of “alternate facts” where chaos, anarchy, and the overthrown rule of law abide (at this point) with impunity. Leon counsels hope and humor; progress does happen, if slowly.
This production’s greatness is in how the director and cast extract immutable themes. These serve as a beacon to guide us through times that “try our souls,” and they encourage us to persist despite the dark impulses of money-driven power dynamics and fascist hegemony that would keep us enthralled.
I saw Much Ado About Nothing in a near downpour then fitful stop and start to continual light rain during which no one in the audience left. Despite this the actors were anointed, phenomenal! I would love to see this work again. I do hope it is recorded somewhere. It’s just wow. The show runs until June 23rd. You may luck out with tickets at their lottery. Go to their website by CLICKING HERE.