Jordan Bellow, Larry Bates and Gregg Daniel in All the Way by Robert Schenkkan (2016). Photo by Debora Robinson.
About All the Way
1963. Lyndon B. Johnson has been catapulted into the most powerful job on earth. No stranger to back room deals, Johnson takes us with him—flattering, backslapping, placating and bullying as he maneuvers to pass the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act. From Martin Luther King Jr. to George Wallace, some of America’s most dynamic leaders stand beside him—or against him—during this tumultuous time, captured vividly in the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit.
Larry Bates is a South Coast Repertory veteran, with nearly 20 shows to his credit—including mainstage productions and Theatre for Young Audiences shows. In All the Way by Robert Schenkkan (2016), a drama about the passage of the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act, Bates portrayed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was a role that presented him with both opportunities and challenges. In this Q&A, he talks about taking on the role and why he chose the photo above as a meaningful moment from the play. He selected the photo above as a meaningful moment from the play.
What moment does this depict?
This is the moment right after Dr. King finds out that President Lyndon B. Johnson was indeed successful at getting the Civil Rights Bill out of committee and to the House of Representatives. It is a great scene because, despite the small victory, there is still a lot at play. The voting rights portion was stripped from the bill and that was a key component and vital to what King was trying to achieve. He is also balancing this small victory in the legislative process with growing impatience and divisions that are developing within his own coalition. There are different factions at play; each was set on achieving the same goal, but one was steadier and more institutional while the other frustrated and growing more radical.
How did you work to make this moment happen?
Luckily, we had a great director and a slew of fabulous actors. Pictured with me [above] are Jordan Bellow, who played Bob Moses, and Gregg Daniel, who played Roy Wilkins. What was great about working on this production was how we all were able to keep everything incredibly light but not forsaking our objectives, the seriousness, or any of the stakes at hand. I laughed so much working on this show with these actors. It really was a great time, and I credit Marc Masterson, our director, with fostering that environment for us especially considering the content.
What’s the power about this moment?
There is a lot on the line. First and foremost, there was the fierce urgency at the moment in history. The stakes were high, and the weight of a people was on his shoulders. So, there is a delicate dance between accepting a small victory to move the ball along while also applying pressure to get more done. At the same time, King must achieve it in a way that keeps his various coalitions intact.
What was challenge for you in portraying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?
These were large shoes to fill for obvious reasons. It was challenging because Dr. King was widely known and his rhetorical style was so uniquely his own that it is tethered to people’s expectations of seeing him. I had the good fortune and opportunity to play Dr. King in another play, several times and in various productions, so I felt relatively at ease. It was still challenging though. What I tried to do was let go of any expectation and simply focus on Dr. King’s humanity as it was revealed through the script, the direction and my scene partners. I did that first and then transitioned to the details that would help meet an audience’s expectation of Dr. King. It was also nice that there were a lot of private moments—those are always great chances to contrast a more private man versus his public persona.
Anything else you’d like to say about the photo or the production?
In addition to Gregg and Jordan, there were two other actors in this scene: Christian Henley as Stokely Carmichael and Rosney Mauger as Ralph Abernathy. We all moved as a team through much of the play and we had the best time. I would like to think that the relationships we formed while doing this piece enriched our performances and the audience’s experience.