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Reliving a Presidency: Alley’s Latest Play Details LBJ’s First Year in Office

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By Donalevan Maines
Photo by Lynn Lane

A little ways into All the Way—the Tony Award-winning play about the first year of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency—LBJ is juggling phone calls while being fitted for a suit in the Oval Office, when he advises the tailor to “leave me some slack for my nutsack.” (Search “LBJ ordering pants” on YouTube to hear the president’s actual recorded conversation.)

LBJ will need a big nutsack for his balls of steel as he pushes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress while scoring the Democratic Party nomination in that fall’s general election.

Assistant director Brandon Weinbrenner. Photo: Courtesy Alley Theatre.
Assistant director Brandon Weinbrenner. Photo: Courtesy Alley Theatre.

The landmark legislation was a prelude to marriage equality, explains the play’s out assistant director, Brandon Weinbrenner. “It all started with women’s suffrage, and a forward motion that took a long, long time [to arrive at] civil rights and gay civil rights,” he says. “You see one group of minorities claim their rights, then people start to realize that we should all be treated equally. We will get there. It’s just a matter of time.”

With the play set in 1964, maybe it shouldn’t come as a shock—but it did, to me—that one scene involves the booting of a major character after DC vice cops catch him having sex with a retired Army sergeant in a YMCA men’s room. It reminded me of a tragic incident in Allen Drury’s 1959 political novel Advise and Consent, but it turns out that this incident actually happened.

In fact, All the Way is full of incidents that might send theatergoers back to the history books to learn more about the fateful years of LBJ’s presidency.

All the Way is a unique co-production of the Alley and the Dallas Theatre Center, with DTC’s artistic director, Kevin Moriarty, directing. Three years ago, in his fourth season at the DTC, Moriarty directed the gay play Next Fall by Geoffrey Naughts. Moriarty told the city’s LGBT newspaper, Dallas Voice, “If I talk about my sexuality or my faith, it’s very different in a living room surrounded by friends than in a room full of strangers. Our role is not to tell people how to live their lives, but to tell stories of people in conflict that are recognizable—there’s me, that’s not me, even though the guy in the next seat feels the opposite.”

Moriarty added, “When I was growing up in Indiana, no one in my town was gay. We didn’t even have quasi-lesbians living together. It wasn’t on TV or in the newspapers. ‘Gay’ wasn’t a term you’d even see in a headline, or anywhere, until the late 1980s. But we’ve been through a lot—now everyone is gay!”

Weinbrenner is a Dallas native who moved to Houston in January 2013 to assume the position of resident assistant director at the Alley. He lives in the Cherryhurst neighborhood of Montrose with his partner, Mitchell Greco, the artistic associate at Stages Repertory Theatre.

When I asked Greco what it’s like having two directors living under the same roof, he assured me that it’s “fab—two directors just means that things get done more efficiently.”

As assistant director on All the Way, Weinbrenner says his job has been “to focus on the comings and goings of the very, very large cast of actors—where they enter . . . the little things,” while Moriarty establishes a style and vision for the show. It is epic in scope but finds poignancy in scenes with only a few players, such as LBJ revealing his fatherly love toward Walter Jenkins, his “loyal, long-suffering, and indispensable” chief of staff, or crying to his wife, Lady Bird, that he wants to resign.

“Let somebody else deal with it,” says LBJ.

Now that Moriarty has returned home to Dallas, Weinbrenner explains that he is entrusted with “maintaining the show as originally directed.”

Company members from both theaters debuted the show January 29 in the Alley’s newly renovated Hubbard Theatre, where it will run through February 21. After a single day off, the troupe will travel north on I-45 to rehearse for a week at DTC’s Wyly Theatre, then perform the show March 3–27 in the city where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, catapulting LBJ to the top office in the land.

“This is an incredibly huge undertaking,” says Weinbrenner. In the show, two dozen actors portray some of the 20th century’s most dynamic political figures, as sketched by Robert Schenkkan, a Chapel Hill, North Carolina, native who grew up in Austin. Schenkkan won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his epic drama The Kentucky Cycle before tackling LBJ’s presidency.

Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd added, “Schenkkan’s play brings the historical events into a stunningly relevant theater event—as the [America] of 1964 is reflected in the equally contentious America of 2016.”

Houston native Shawn Hamilton is cast as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with Paul Hope as Gov. Carl Sanders, Chris Hutchison as Robert McNamara, David Rainey as Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and John Tyson as Sen. Richard Russell.

The cast of artists from Dallas Theater Center’s Brierley Resident Acting Company includes Kieran (Michael) Connolly as J. Edgar Hoover, Hassan El-Amin as Roy Wilkins, Chamblee Ferguson as Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Alex Organ as Stanley Levison, Brandon Potter as Gov. George Wallace, and Steven Michael Walters as Walter Jenkins. Additional actors include Adam A. Anderson as Stokely Carmichael and Leah Spillman as Lady Bird.

All the Way debuted on Broadway in March 2014, winning Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for Bryan Cranston as LBJ.

A Hollywood version of All the Way is reportedly being filmed as an HBO television production starring Cranston as LBJ.

What: All the Way
When: Through February 21
Where: Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue
Details: alleytheatre.org

Donalevan Maines also writes about the Houston Grand Opera in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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