Nearly 60 years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and on the heels of the country’s 34th observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s production of All the Way hones-in on the fight for civil rights. Set in 1964, the cause is as relevant now as it was then.
The company’s adaptation of Robert Schenkkan’s award-winning political thriller, under the direction of Brian Issac Phillips, chronicles one of the most turbulent times in American history in a profound and artistic way without sacrificing historical context. As the country was placed into the hands of Lyndon B. Johnson, a boisterous and insecure accidental president, the United States became embroiled in an unpopular foreign war — Vietnam — as civil unrest raged on at home.
As LBJ, veteran ensemble member Jim Hopkins brings to life the 36th president’s bold, raspy voice and knack for colorful language with a Texas twang. Reflective monologues on the part of Hopkins reveal the internal turmoil of a man who wants to do what is right versus having to do what is required of him to be recognized as a legitimate commander in chief.
As Martin Luther King Jr., Sylvester Little Jr. effortlessly honors the memory of the civil rights leader by conveying his steadfast candor, fearless resolve and persistence to achieve equality. Overall, the CSC cast takes on the complicated task of representing multiple figures from recent American history with a sophisticated ease. As they attempt to relive this daunting time, each actor leans all the way into their respective role.
Shannon Moore’s brilliant set design includes a replica of the 1964 Oval Office; the large presidential seal acts as the stage’s backdrop, with historical photos and footage of pivotal moments projected on the screen.
Midway through the production, there’s a declaration that gender has nothing to do with discrimination. This is interesting as there is little to no display of the strength of women during this time in the play.
CSC’s choice to add All the Way to its Season of the Woman roster was at first ironic. Upon seeing the play, the move proved to be strategic, however, as it calls attention to how women were pushed to the background during one of the most notable periods of civic change in the country’s history. Mostly due to sexism, it was men who seemed to be at the forefront of the civil rights movement.
But history proves that women were the architects of many key elements of the fight for equality. The tour de force of Candice Handy as Fannie Lou Hamer — co-founder and vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party — in the showdown for delegate selection during the 1964 Democratic National Convention is a profound example of how women exuded strength in the civil rights fight. Handy also plays the role of Coretta Scott King (King’s wife), while Katie Wilford portrays Lady Bird Johnson (President Johnson’s wife); both show the quiet strength of women behind the men who hail them as their personal confidants.
CSC’s All the Way accurately depicts the chaos of a nation in turmoil following the assassination of President Kennedy and the unease Americans felt in President Johnson’s leadership.
The best and worst of the 1960s in comparison to the present day is a stark reminder that while some progress has been made, more is necessary to achieve and sustain equality for all. The struggle for civil rights has taken many forms over the years and has left a permanent stain in the fabric of American history. CSC’s adaptation of All the Way is a signal that if you don’t remember the past, you are doomed to repeat it.
All The Way is onstage at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (1195 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine) through Feb. 15. Advance ticket prices start at $28. For more info, visit cincyshakes.com.