Lyndon B. Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One at Love Field Airport, Nov. 22, 1963, two hours and eight minutes after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Dallas, Texas. Jackie Kennedy (right), still in her blood-soaked clothes, looks on.
Top: “All the Way with LBJ,” presidential campaign button, 1964; below: "Support Johnson and Civil Rights" campaign pin, 1964.
All the Way begins in November 1963. President John F. Kennedy has been assassinated, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson finds himself suddenly—and quite unexpectedly—the leader of a nation in mourning. But despite the somber climate, Johnson knows there is much to do: too many Americans live in insurmountable poverty, the conflict in Vietnam continues to escalate and tensions surrounding civil rights divide the nation and threaten the lives and livelihood of the country’s black population. And, with the election of 1964 looming, LBJ has just a short time to prove that he’s an effective leader and worthy of re-election.
After only days in office, Johnson pledges to support the passage of Kennedy’s comprehensive civil rights bill, which he hopes will begin to eradicate “every trace of discrimination that is based upon race or color.” The bill, however, has languished in Congress since the summer, in large part due to the Southern Democrats, or Dixiecrats, who view all civil rights legislation as an attack on the South. It’s now up to LBJ—himself a Southerner—to pry it out.
To accomplish this seemingly Sisyphean task, Johnson enlists the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, including Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, to drum up support for the bill. LBJ uses his political savvy to cajole, bully and threaten his opponents, as well. But the president also needs the aid of civil rights groups and their leaders—including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Bob Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—whose trust in the political machine’s ability to effectively pass civil rights laws is beginning to crumble.
As 1963 turns into 1964, the bill’s fate remains uncertain, as does Johnson’s political future. The issue of civil rights is testing his party’s unity, and LBJ fears he’ll lose the election if the Southern Democrats turn against him. Meanwhile, George Wallace, the governor of Alabama and a staunch segregationist, has launched an aggressive primary campaign, with the hopes of winning the Democratic presidential nomination over Johnson. With only months left until the election, the question remains: what will it take for the country to go “All the Way with LBJ”?
In All the Way, playwright Robert Schenkkan, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for The Kentucky Cycle, brings Lyndon Johnson’s year as an accidental president to life using an epic scope. The storytelling is expansive, complex and suspenseful, and the 18-actor cast plays more than 50 characters who, in ways both big and small, shaped the nation’s history. The play was commissioned by and premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a fitting venue for a piece that shares similarities with the Bard’s work. “Shakespeare’s history plays are very often a meditation on power,” Schenkkan said in a 2012 interview with the Austin Chronicle, “and that’s what this play is very definitely about: power—the acquisition of, the uses of, the costs of, ends vs. means. Power and morality: What is the nexus?” And to explore the many facets of power, Schenkkan centers All the Way on a character as dynamic as one of Shakespeare’s kings: President Johnson, an idiosyncratic man the playwright describes as “cruel and extremely manipulative and childish and petty and generous and loving.”
The cast of All the Way on the first day of rehearsal. From left to right: Darin Singleton, Lynn Gallagher, Bo Foxworth, Robert Curtis Brown, Nike Doukas, William Francis McGuire, Jordan Bellow, Tracey A. Leigh, Hal Landon Jr., Christian Henely, Hugo Armstrong, Jeff Marlow, Larry Bates, JD Cullum, Larry John Meyers, Gregg Daniel, Rosney Mauger and Matthew Arkin.
Although audiences might find All the Way evocative of Shakespeare, it’s a contemporary play—a story rooted in history, yet altogether relevant to today. For SCR Artistic Director Marc Masterson, also the production’s director, the play’s look at the art of compromise is particularly significant: “It’s something that seems to have been lost or pushed aside in the present political climate…. We can look to the time of All the Way and see how they all had to give something up in order to get something done. And I think we miss that.” The play’s ability to speak to today’s audiences brought it to Broadway in 2013, where it met much acclaim and won the Tony Award for Best Play. In May 2016, a film adaptation premiered on HBO and reached an even wider audience.
While All the Way is steeped in history, it is first and foremost a play. “I’m a dramatist here,” Schenkkan pointed out in his interview with the Austin Chronicle. “I’m not a historian. This is a work of dramatic fiction.” But no matter who is in the audience—a history buff, a Shakespeare fanatic, a political junkie or simply a lover of a great story—All the Way promises to be a thrilling, thoughtful and moving experience.
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