Theatre Review: “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” at the IRT

Last Thursday night (5/1/08), I drove downtown to the Indiana Repertory Theatre to see “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” by James Still.  This one-man historical piece stars David Alan Anderson.  It was directed by IRT artistic director Janet Allen.

This production is part of the celebration of Still’s ten years as the IRT’s playwright-in-residence.  According to the pre-show “prologue” talk given by actress Jamison Kay Garrison from the IRT’s education department, this is the most requested piece in the last seven years at the IRT.  I overheard several people sitting near me in the audience telling their friends that they had seen it and loved it when it premiered here seven years ago. 

Anderson portrays Alonzo Fields, an African-American man from Indiana who served as butler for the White House during four presidents: Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower.

The actor who originated the role here in Indianapolis, John Henry Redwood, died after reprising the role in seven other productions.  Anderson took on the role after that and performed it at a couple of other places before coming back here to do it for the IRT.

He is wonderful.

I know I am not supposed to use words such as “wonderful” because everyone uses them.

But he is.

And so is the whole show.

This is historical storytelling at its most thrilling, its most intriguing, its most personal-universal.

Technically, Anderson is not a storyteller, using my (admittedly still developing) definition of oral tradition storytelling, because he is not himself up there on stage.  Even though there is no fourth wall, he is acting as if he is Alonzo Fields and he is very precisely speaking words that James Still researched and/or imagined for Fields.  The words are rich with historical and emotional content, and although I didn’t think about it at the time, I now realize that Anderson and Allen must have had to deliberately do an enormous amount of artistic decision-making in preparing this piece.

However, Anderson brings what I love most about storytelling into his acting: an intimate and fearless connection to his audience, a sharing that goes far beyond “eye contact” and in-the-moment responsiveness.  As Anderson tells what Fields remembers about the famous and not-so-famous people he met at the White House and the experiences they shared, the line between actor and storyteller blurs.  Anderson is calling up truths about Fields’ character, and his own…about Fields’ time, and our own…about Fields’ realizations about his dreams, his art, his place in the world…and our own.

I tell you, it is heady stuff.

It makes me want to read the free Enrichment Guide from cover to cover and then go to my local public library to read some more.  I want to learn more about all of the presidents, but especially Truman.  Fields describes the Truman years as an “era of appreciation.”   I would like my life to be that, too.

I would also like to learn more about the Roosevelts.  Anderson’s depiction of Eleanor Roosevelt as imitated by Fields moved me to compassionate laughter; President Roosevelt’s death after serving so long as president moved me to tears. 

But Fields himself is a fascinating man, too.  I love that he discreetly took notes in his own, secret shorthand about who he met and what happened while he was working at the White House.  I also love that after he served there for more than two decades, he became (according to the Enrichment Guide) “a popular speaker and storyteller.  He traveled to various churches, gentlemen’s groups, and civic groups entertaining audiences with stories from his years at the White House.” 

I think Anderson could tell this storyteller’s story all by himself, without any special costumes, props, recordings, slides, or other staging, especially if he were in front of a crowd of oral tradition storytelling fans, people who are used to doing a lot of the work themselves in terms of imagining what things looked like and keeping themselves in the story.  However, the clever and elegant theatrical elements in the IRT’s production do make it easier for the audience to stay engaged.  The theatrical enhancements are also just very enjoyable in their own right.

Each president, for example, is represented by an empty chair that glides in at the proper moment, as if by magic, on a small, thin platform that is painted to match the pale grey floor.  As Anderson lifts each unique chair, the platform rolls away again.   He places the chair at different locations around the mostly bare set to help illustrate his storytelling.  When he has finished telling about that chair’s president, a platform appears again and slides the chair away.  Unobtrusively and calmly, like a butler.

Sometimes a bench pops smoothly up from the floor down front, and then Fields is sitting across from the White House, looking over at it while talking to us and waiting for his bus.

There is a large, white panel at each side of the stage and at the back.   Occasionally, on the back panel, slides appear, showing some of the people in the story: Winston Churchill, Marian Anderson, the presidents and their families.  Sometimes there are snippets of old-timey-sounding recordings of their voices.  Sometimes the recording is of a song, and Fields sings along with it.  He remains dignified, but we hear the yearning in his voice: he always wanted to become a professional vocalist.

Robert M. Koharchik designed the set.  Todd Mack Reischman designed the sound and Michael Keck did the soundscape.  (What a cool word: “soundscape!”)  Amy K. Denkmann is the stage manager.

Ryan Koharchik designed the lighting.  Often it is striated, falling generously at a diagonal across the back of the stage and shaking very, very slightly.  It reminded me of the light that used to bounce off the cut crystal glasses at my grandparents’ house when the dining room table was set for a holiday dinner and someone walked across the wooden floor.

However, when Secret Service men whisk Fields and some of the other White House staff away to serve at a secret location during the war, the light fills out and brightens to a delicious, lemony color.  And sure enough, they/we are in Florida.

I won’t spoil the ending by describing it here, except to say that the visual is gorgeous, and Fields’ last few lines had me weeping.  Simply weeping.

The two British couples sitting in the row ahead of me said, “Brilliant!” and “Superb!” to each other after we had all given Anderson a standing ovation.  

The Cuban-American man that was sitting next to me, and with whom I had chatted a bit during intermission, saw me wiping my face when the house lights came up. 

He smiled and said, “I know.  I even cried a little bit, too.”

“Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” continues on the Mainstage at the Indiana Repertory Theatre through May 18.  Please call 317-635-5252 to make a reservation.  There is usually a short, educational “prologue” talk beginning 45 minutes before each performance.  Pick up a free Enrichment Guide, edited by the IRT’s dramaturg, Richard J. Roberts, at the earphones-and-cough drops table just inside the lobby to your right as you have your ticket scanned.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

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