- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
It is clear that no couple has made a greater impact on Central Texas over the long run than Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. From his role in taming in the Colorado River to his scores of national triumphs and tragedies — that reverberated back home — LBJ looms large in local memory. From her environmentalism to her wide-ranging philanthropy, Lady Bird also helped shape this city and its ways of thinking.
With that in mind, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, who grew up in LBJ’s long Austin shadow, wrote a two-part stage epic about the president. The first installment, “All the Way,” won Tony Awards on Broadway for Schenkkan and for star Bryan Cranston before receiving lauded treatment on HBO.
In 2015, Zach Theatre produced a critically acclaimed version of “All the Way” with actor Steve Vinovich, Cranston’s Broadway understudy, in the lead role. He returns under the direction of Dave Steakley in the second part, “The Great Society,” which begins previews on Jan. 25.
We sat down with Steakley at a South Austin coffee shop to discuss the great, flawed man and his permanent influence on Austin.
American-Statesman: What are some specific connections with Central Texas culture in ‘The Great Society’?
Dave Steakley: In the play, LBJ talks about bringing electricity to the Hill Country and what that meant to generations of families who led hardscrabble lives, and how transformative it was to our region. It was an early political lesson and achievement that stayed with him as a way that you can transform the lives of others, particularly poor persons, for the better, making sure everyone has access to the basics of life. Also, some of the scenes are set at the “Texas White House” — the LBJ Ranch — and many of our local audience members will have toured his home and birthplace in Johnson City, as well as the first-rate Presidential Library here in Austin.
During the Austin run of ‘All the Way,’ did audience members share their memories of these vivid characters as part of their daily lives?
Nightly — at intermission or after performances — an audience member would come up to me and say, “I was in LBJ’s administration,” or, “I did Lady Bird’s hair,” or, “LBJ appointed me to this commission.” It was really staggering to see how many persons with a direct connection to President Johnson still live in our community.
I had a long conversation with one of LBJ’s attorneys about his admiration for Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who navigated the warm relationships he had throughout the Senate and House during very difficult years, saying he came by the nickname the “Happy Warrior” honestly, because he was genuinely the happiest man he had ever met.
The adult children of the late Walter Jenkins, LBJ’s closest top aide, came to see the play, and visited with the cast afterward. We also had a pre-show conversation for the audience with Marc Seriff’s dad, who is 94, and his 97-year-old uncle, Milton Simons, who was president of the Congregation Agudas Achim at the time Johnson became president.
LBJ, a longtime friend of the Austin Jewish community, had agreed to speak at the grand opening of the synagogue, which was slated for the day after President Kennedy was killed. Of course the event was canceled, and later moved to a date in December. LBJ was able to do that because he was so committed to the local congregation and wanted to honor his commitment.
The Vietnam War plays a big part in this second LBJ play. How does that connect back with Austin and the Great Society bills Johnson pushed through Congress?
President Johnson introduced 104 bills associated with the Great Society promptly upon taking office for his second term in 1965, with initiatives for education, poverty, voting rights, Medicare and Medicaid, cultural arts and more. Throughout the play, the audience sees a tally board which keeps you apprised of the number of wounded and dead soldiers in Vietnam while simultaneously you are watching the billions of dollars earmarked for the Great Society programs funneled into the war. The great accumulated loss at the end of the play, in addition to all of the lives lost in Vietnam, is the squandering of resources that could have made significant progress on poverty and race issues that perhaps would have corrected some of the inequalities still unresolved more than 50 years later.
I’m guessing that you and your cast have learned a lot about the Johnsons over the course of these two shows. Are you becoming experts?
We are all experts in different areas. This company of actors relishes the research. YouTube has become a resource that I don’t know what we would do without, since this play is populated with more than 40 characters, and thanks to the film resources there, we can access footage of almost everyone in the play.
In the play, LBJ has a secretary named Sally Childress, who is a composite of several secretaries who served under Johnson, but who is based in part on Geraldine “Gerri” Whittington, who was the first African-American secretary in the White House. Having a black woman in the White House was very unusual in the early 1960s, and Johnson arranged for Whittington to appear on the television game show “What’s My Line” to promote integration. LBJ made sure that she was the first person to learn that he had nominated Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.
On New Year’s Eve 1963, LBJ took Whittington to the Forty Acres Club, a segregated Austin social club, and appeared with her arm-in-arm, which instantly integrated the club that night. He showed that the presidency could be used for breaking down barriers, and he started by doing it at home.
How long does the cast discuss the characters and scenes around a table, and what’s different about that, given the current political atmosphere?
On the first night, we have a discussion about why we are doing the play, then give a presentation on the approach to the scenery, costumes and other design elements. Then we read through the play together for the first time as a cast and answer some questions and casting assignments as we proceed. The next night we do scene work, still seated at a table, on Act I, going moment by moment, having a conversation, bringing clarity to moments, working on moments when the cast speaks in unison or when characters have overlapping dialogue.
In a scene in Act II, Martin Luther King leads a peaceful protest into Chicago’s all-white Gage Park neighborhood. Our researchers answered the actors’ questions about what the neighborhood was like, who comprised it, where it sits within Chicago, what was King and his civil rights team doing before and after this moment, etc. In the midst of this conversation, Michelle Alexander, who plays Coretta Scott King, said that the circumstances in the play felt to her exactly like the misunderstandings surrounding the intent of the Black Lives Matter movement today.
This opened the door to a freewheeling conversation about all the parallels in the play to this time, and how the political events of this year so closely mirror events in the play. This conversation lasted 90 minutes and was a needed release valve.
Actors and artists are empathetic by nature, and they suddenly find themselves in a rehearsal room playing characters whom they may or may not agree with politically, who are grappling with issues that they as citizens have been struggling with all year long. It’s hard for a Caucasian actor, for instance, to yell horribly racist things at their African-American colleagues, such as when staging Dr. King’s Marches in Selma and Chicago, when those words offend you deeply, and which you have seen fellow Americans say at political rallies this year, to your horror.
I suspect it is even harder to be an African-American actor who is receiving those demeaning words, and telling a story which shows a cycle of history repeating, and often retreating, with no true progress.
Preparing for both plays, did it help that the author is an Austin product and that he did his research right here at the LBJ Library?
I don’t know that another playwright could have delivered these plays with the same level of authenticity and knowing that Robert Schenkkan does. He grew up in Austin, his father had to get permission from LBJ to start the PBS station here, and he has logged countless hours of research not only at the LBJ Library, but in interviews with LBJ’s associates and so many others. When Robert writes about the Hill Country or the caliche soil or the vernacular in which LBJ spoke, it rings with authenticity, and local audiences notice when it’s right.
The HBO version of ‘All the Way’ opened up the role of Lady Bird and gave her presence greater weight. Has that been true with ‘The Great Society’?
Lady Bird’s role is small in “The Great Society.” Robert is relating in a three-act play an enormous amount of history that happened in a very eventful four years. The LBJ and Lady Bird story is not the one he is telling, and we know that she was very influential in his political career, just as other first ladies have been for their husbands. The Lady Bird story is a fascinating one, and I have great admiration for her writing and her pioneering environmental work; it will be a play of the future, I feel certain, that someone will tackle. That said, we are given key peeks into personal moments with Lady Bird, their daughter Lynda and son-in-law Charles Robb that bring the larger national events to bear at home in an intimate way.
What have you learned about Austin while doing these two plays?
I always marvel that Central Texas has given voice to — and catapulted to the national stage — individuals who have a huge impact on the American citizenry — Presidents Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush, first ladies Lady Bird Johnson and Laura Bush, Gov. Ann Richards, Rep. Barbara Jordan, political writers Molly Ivins and Liz Carpenter, among others. Plays about Texas political figures are of tremendous interest to Austin and are the most popular plays we produce. We like to grapple with these issues, and the messiness of the political process, with all of its intrigue and humor and storied backroom negotiations. I value that aspect of our city’s identity and the lively participation of our citizens.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story misidentified Milton Simons.