LBJ might be an over-the-top, deal-cutting, crotch-grabbing politician who quite freely soliloquizes his motives to his audience, but Frank Underwood he is not. Whereas the beloved villain of House of Cards only wants to accrue more and more power, LBJ, at least as All the Way presents him, has much loftier and personal ambitions. Behind his frequent cursing, his vulgar stories, and his deft power play, there is quite a vulnerable man whose clear vision of racism and inequality in his country drives him to make change.
But being president, especially one who wasn’t elected, means juggling nine million people’s worth of interests and beliefs, not the least among them a group of black activists, led by Martin Luther King Jr., who feel the urgency of change as they witness their friends and family hurt or killed in violent or systemic racism. These men and women are impatient for a fully-protective Civil Rights Bill and U.S. government is certainly not known for swiftness.
Here’s how All the Way manages to truthfully (and sometimes uncomfortably) depict the fight for civil rights in the White House:
1) There are more people involved in change than the white folks in power…and often they don’t have the same priorities.
We need to give credit where credit is due and though Johnson’s name is the one on the bill, there so many other leaders and factions of the movement who sacrificed for the cause of civil rights. This isn’t some Freedom Writers story where a benevolent white person goes into a community of struggling black folk and solves their problems. All the Way makes sure to present various pieces of the civil rights machine, including the militant Freedom Summer in Mississippi.
2) Change is a series of slow compromises, including some steps backwards.
LBJ’s presidency ran through an incredibly divisive period of American politics, much like our current moment. And it’s hard enough to juggle the interests of extremist groups while worrying about whether you’ll be elected next term. There are several times in the play where the civil rights leaders must back down on what they know to be right in order to buy time (and votes) for a next term. The Voting Rights section of the bill, probably the most important part, is stripped so that the other sections can be passed. Black delegates cannot be seated at the DNC so that voters don’t think LBJ is taking orders from the black Freedom Party. Just a reminder, this is taking place a hundred years after the Civil War. But this is our system. Would we trade it for any other? …Maybe?
3) We as audience have a real, tangible responsibility in the future of the country.
This is a play about real events in our real country that happened. Really. And All the Way’s direction asserts our responsibility in several break-the-fourth-wall scenes. LBJ addresses us both as insiders to his thinking, as well as listeners at his inaugural address and other speeches. In a far more blatantly direct address, members of the Freedom Summer movement come out into the audience during a funeral scene for one of the killed activists. One man says (paraphrasing), “Do not go home and tell your family what a nice funeral service you attended. Instead, look to what must be done to prevent crimes like these from happening again.” It’s a powerful scene because it mimics the play’s demands of us too. Don’t go home and talk about what a nice play it was or what a boss Bryan Cranston is. Be uncomfortable with what you see here. Remember that our political climate ain’t so different now.