Alonzo Fields stood in the White House as some of the biggest decisions in American history were made.
But he never said a word.
Now Fields, the first black White House chief butler, has found a voice. His story serves as the inspiration for James Still’s one-man show “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” which opens Friday at Ford’s Theatre.
“He was so good at his job because he didn’t talk,” said Still, who also directs the piece. “I wrote a play where he was the only one who talked.”
The play follows Fields as he watches presidents from Herbert Hoover to Dwight D. Eisenhower tackle issues such as racism and warfare. At the same time, Fields adjusts to the differences in White House life between administrations.
The play’s foundation draws on many of Fields’ actual memoirs and diary entries, Still said. It is often nonlinear in its movements in order to explore Fields’ experience from as many angles as possible.
For example, sometimes Fields speaks in the first person, others the third. Sometimes he discusses a memory, while at other times he is reliving the event for the audience to see.
“It’s very old fashioned in that it really is this story about this one person,” Still said.
Fields, who died in 1994, originally wanted to be an opera singer but took the job at the White House to support his family. It was the theme of an “American everyman” who puts his own dreams on hold for others that Still wanted to convey in the play, he said.
“I think it’s easy to sort of look past that person,” he said. “I wanted to make that invisible person visible.”
Wendell Wright, who stars in the production, said the piece is so meaningful because it tells the story of an unsung American hero.
“These men [like Fields] actually have a great impact on our society, but we don’t know them,” he said.
The play is also significant because it is showing in Washington during Black History Month, Wright said. However, the piece is filled with so much Washington history, it could show any time and still be as meaningful, he said.
“It is wonderful that the timing worked out this way,” Wright said.
Still read about Fields in an old newspaper clipping four years ago while he was doing research for his play “Amber Waves,” which studies a rural Minnesota family. Shortly after, Still began researching Fields’ life, contacting officials in Indiana, Missouri and even at the White House, he said.
He was then able to get in touch with Fields’ wife, Mayland, who gave him access to much of Fields’ old paperwork, and tour the White House grounds to get a firsthand look at what Fields quietly saw on a day-to-day basis.
“Fields was such a beloved person in the White House,” he said. “Anyone who knew him had such warm feelings about him.”
“Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” runs from Jan. 30 to March 7 at Ford’s Theatre. For ticket information, call (202) 434-9548.