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LBJ’s Civil Rights Struggle a Stage Production

'All the Way' explores Johnson's complex relationship with MLK and other key figures of the era

Willis as LBJ. (Photo courtesy of Arena Stage)
Willis as LBJ. (Photo courtesy of Arena Stage)

On a recent night at DC’s Arena Stage, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg watched as the most pivotal 11 months of President Lyndon Johnson’s life, and perhaps the Democratic Party’s, was portrayed in three hours.  

Ginsburg characteristically showed no emotion or reaction, but kept her eyes on Jack Willis, who plays the southern bulldog of an accidental president.  

“All the Way” opens with a Johnson who’s been sworn in following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 and ends the night Johnson wins re-election. In less than a year, the Texas Democrat struggled for passage of the Civil Rights Act while trying to hold together the two factions of the Democratic Party that were pulling in opposite directions.  

“It’s relevant to today; as in ’64, there’s been a conservative takeover,” playwright Robert Schenkkan told HOH. “The political cycle we entered in ’64—perhaps we are convulsively exiting it.”  

The play dives into Johnson’s complicated relationships with both Martin Luther King, Jr. and his segregationist Southern Democrat mentor, Sen. Richard Russell.  

“We’re entering a period where we are re-looking to LBJ,” Schenkkan said. “In this time of calculated gridlock, where Congress has never suffered such embarrassingly low popularly ratings, where it can’t get anything done, we look back at LBJ … rather wistfully.”  

Willis as LBJ and Bowman Wright as King. (Photo courtesy of Arena Stage)
Willis as LBJ and Bowman Wright as King. (Photo courtesy of Arena Stage)

Schenkkan grew up in Austin, Texas, close to the Johnson ranch, and his family was invited to visit. “I remembered how incredibly respectful my father was around him,” he said.  

“[The play has] been in my head for a long time and my feelings about him have evolved over time,” Schenkkan said. “I think I now have a very complicated view of what was a very complex man.”  

The play also explores LBJ’s relationships with his wife Lady Bird, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on the cusp of the Vietnam War, eventual Vice President Hubert Humphrey and then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace, whose segregationist appeal made him a key figure of the era.  

The play has been made into an HBO film produced by Steven Spielberg and starring Bryan Cranston, the actor best known as high school teacher turned meth cook Walter White on AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad.’ Cranston also played LBJ on Broadway two years ago, and won a Tony. The film is set to air on May 21.  

   


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