I sat down to speak with actor Bowman Wright on his role in the upcoming production of All The Way, a play that focuses on the relationship between President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The play centers around the political wrangling that took place to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. President Johnson and Dr. King had a complex relationship that was at times a futuristic partnership considering the racial temperature of the times and at others filled with the tension and paranoia that marked Johnson’s interactions with just about everyone. A lot of the tension between President Johnson and Dr. King centered on the removal of the Voting Rights portion of the bill, however, they came to the realization that this issue could be taken care of in the next year. The Voting Rights Act passed in 1965.
All The Way walks the audience through this crucial moment in history and features 17 actors playing more than 40 historical figures, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Governor George Wallace, Walter Jenkins, Robert McNamara, Sen. Richard Russell, Roy Wilkins and Stanley Levison.
According to Wright, one of the great things about All The Way is,
It sparks conversation, which should make people want to talk about their politicians and have a conversation about it, realizing that this is a time of anger. I don’t think we are too far from that now. I think we are actually at the same point. Everyone is very, very angry and reacting with their emotions rather than common sense. This is really good timing to be doing this play.
I asked Wright about playing the role of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr particularly because he had previously portrayed Dr. King in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, a powerful imagining of Dr. King’s last night in the Lorraine Hotel on the eve of his assassination. Wright, a consummate professional with a resume of plays such as King Hedley II (King) and Our Lady of Kibeho; TogDog/UnderDog and A Raisin in the Sun was quick to make the distinction between an imagined scenario and real and factual events that would have occurred three years prior to King’s assassination.
For me the most important thing was focusing on what was going on in the time period right now. My distrust (as King) of LBJ isn’t about something I think he will do in the future but of what I think he won’t do right now, that he will allow his political ambitions to overshadow what this bill really means and what this bill can really do for the people.
As Wright delves into the relationship between the two men, he hones in on the fact that it wasn’t necessarily that King distrusted Johnson in those moments, it was more that King was disappointed.
LBJ wanted the War on Poverty just as much as King but he got wrapped up in the Vietnam War and that is what really destroyed his presidency.
Wright further elucidates,
King realized that this President needed to be pushed to do the right thing and asks himself what he has to do to make that happen. King wants to make sure the bill was not gutted as Johnson had done before; that he really pushes it through.
Wright says that performing as King in The Mountaintop gave him a deeper more personal look into King as a person, particularly the magnitude of his character both as a public persona and the truth of his humanity.
A man trying to do the right thing that also has his own flaws but is still trying to do the right thing is more powerful and more courageous. The truth is not always going to make you smile and it may not always make you happy. But King comes to bring truth to the people and the truth of what people need.
At this point, Wright opens up about how Dr. King has personally impacted him.
For me King has brought me back personally from a lot of bad times in my life. Reading his stuff and hearing his speeches and just listening to him. Life at times can make you bitter about a lot of different things. Maybe your career, maybe other situations in life and the great thing about King is that his philosophy is sound. He has a couple of things in his sermons that make you look at yourself and you have to accept things about yourself. You have to take your grief and say this is my grief, now what am I going to do with this grief? Am I going to sit in it or am I going to try to serve in some way? Not to make this grief go away but to make this grief be purposeful and to have this grief actually mean something and be able to change someone else’s situation. As I am changing someone else’s situation, I am also changing my situation.
This juxtaposition of the man versus the myth seems to have served as the launching pad for Wright’s ability to so powerfully capture the essence of Dr. King.
All The Way is particularly relevant and timely because it takes place during an election cycle. Today, as we approach another election cycle, I asked Wright about similarities between then and now. With a social climate that is roiling over police brutality and disparate treatment of people of color made hyper visible by movements like Black Lives Matter, I asked Wright his thoughts on whether Dr. King would approve of the movement’s tactics and focus. While Wright made clear that he cannot speak for Dr. King or anyone else, his observation was that it is a bigger issue than race and that no one side can fully blame the other for the situation we currently find ourselves in.
#BlackLivesMatter. I do think he (King) would be behind that 100% and he would have held it up to the government to get the government to hold their end of the bargain. With #BlackLivesMatter it is not that other lives don’t matter and I think King would want that to be clear. But this is why voting rights is important and this is exactly why we need to be involved in local government. Be involved in your local offices so these things cannot happen and if they do happen there will be punishment when they happen. A lot of times people are not involved in our local community. We are not paying attention to each other and we are not having the conversations we need to have.
Wright continues to reflect,
It seems that in this country African Americans have had to teach morality to the White race. For so long in this country we have had to be the better men or people. Now when I say this I don’t mean all white people, but I do mean a certain white culture.
It’s clear that Wright has spent time pondering the complexity of these issues and levels no direct blame instead choosing to embody personally King’s teachings of compassion for humanity and justice for all.
When it comes to the intrinsic nature of Dr. King, Wright seems to have been able to tap into much of the core of Dr. King both as a an icon who’s idealism is often manipulated for public consumption and as a man who acknowledged his own humanity and flawed nature while still being able to push forward with compassion his ideals for an America in which the tenants of equality, justice and love abounds. If you are in the DC area, be sure to check Bowman Wright out in All The Way. All The Way runs April 1st-May 8th on the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage. The official opening night is April 7th. Tickets are available at www.arenastage.org.