Lurleen Wallace and Muriel Humphrey – two women who were caught up in the political whirlwind that defined a decade. During the battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Muriel Humphrey was married to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a supporter of the legislation, while Lurleen Wallace was married to Alabama Governor George Wallace who opposed integration. In Arena Stage’s production of the Tony Award-winning play, All the Way, Adrienne Nelson will appear as these two very different women. For Nelson, appearing in Robert Schenkkan’s play has taken her on an historic journey. Muriel was born in the Midwest, and Lurleen, in the south, both would go on to succeed their husbands in office. Muriel would be appointed to her husband’s seat in the Senate after he died, while Lurleen was elected Alabama’s governor after her husband was ineligible to run for reelection.
We asked Adrienne how she prepared for her roles and what she learned about these two women who were married to powerful men at opposite ends of the political spectrum. In a previous story, Susan Rome talked about playing Lady Bird Johnson, and Shannon Dorsey, who will play Coretta Scott King, will be featured in a future story.
None of you actually lived through the Civil Rights battle in the 1960s. What research did you do that helped take you back to that historic time?
As I delved deeper into this explosive chapter in our country’s history, I began with the Humphreys to revisit this time period first through the prism of their experiences and journeys. Hubert Humphrey’s biography The Education of a Public Man My Life and Politics has proven to be very enlightening as well as footage from Hubert H. Humphrey The Art of the Possible. I watched the PBS documentary on George Wallace as well as the John Frankenheimer film based on Marshall Frady’s ’96 biography Wallace: The Classic Portrait of Alabama Governor George Wallace. Side note: my husband actually worked on the film in L.A. under co-producer and family friend, former head of casting for CBS Ethel Winant. He did all sorts of things for the production large and small though always remembers having to read the big MLK speech during an early table read with just the principals at the Ambassador Hotel. My husband, Ian Armstrong, is not African American and of course has such incredible respect for Dr. King so was a bit wary of reading it to say the least.Though when they shared they really needed to just hear it for the rhythm/pacing and thanks to Mr. Sinise’s encouragement (Gary Sinese starred in the film as Wallace), he gave it his best shot. Side note #2, I have read that George Wallace did NOT approve of many parts of this film.
Although I’ve found articles, letters, recordings, videos, documentaries, and photographs to be extremely useful, I also have enjoyed rewatching Selma, Mississippi Burning and The Long Walk Home to remember and revisit different interpretations of this chapter. Just like Schenkkan’s All the Way, they are not documentaries. I find it can still be extremely productive for an actor to imagine the private moments and conversations that were not captured – and these films smartly fill in/offer up many possibilities of what dialogue might have been shared behind closed doors before different pivotal moments in history. I can’t wait for Mr. Schennkan to write an epic play about President Obama’s time at the White House. Can we make this happen?
As our inspiring and visionary director Kyle Donnelly has encouraged/reminded us, it is often most useful and revealing to see what happens before and after an iconic photograph is taken and speech is made and legacy is set. Some of my most treasured pieces of research have been seeing glimpses of Muriel Humphrey (and Lurleen Wallace, the MFDP – Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party – members, and LBJ’s secretaries) before during and after an iconic and historic shot was taken and also on film thanks to (for Muriel) Ladybird’s home videos! There’s some great raw footage of the Humphreys at the ranch in ’55 that foreshadow and reveal more than 100 articles could.
The Humphreys – Adrienne Nelson and Richard Clodfelter
There are also wonderful recordings of Muriel talking to LBJ on the phone and a video of Muriel’s first day as a Senator (albeit from a time later in her life) that provide some character gold and connective tissue.
I’m also so very grateful to the beautiful and generous guidance and expertise of Arena’s Literary Manager Linda Lombardi for leading us to the most reputable and revealing resources to better understand the complexities, nuances, personalities involved in the MFDP, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Freedom Summer, Congress of Racial Equality, NAACP, and other groups and turning points during this movement, especially the timelines and interconnections and challenges/divisions between some of the groups.
What did you learn that surprised you the most?
I was actually most surprised by the game/”dance with the devil” that politicians had to play publicly and privately to serve and champion their (and their constituents’) interests and to get anything done/passed. I love that Schenkkan’s play allows us to viscerally experience up close the public dance, personal sacrifices, professional compromises and private moments (the latter where a little of the actual truth and beliefs are shared), to better understand the players involved, the scapegoats, the lesser known allies, the egos, and the pros and cons of getting power and becoming addicted to what it affords/promises/entices. I’ve lived in DC for 20 years. I perhaps should not be surprised. I have lived among many of the players. During various chapters of my life in the city, I have taught their children. I’ve served them food. I’ve performed for them. I’ve produced events with them. I’ve overheard them revealing their honest thoughts at local watering holes. They’ve told me outright at local watering holes what they really want/feel/how they have to do it/make it happen! But I was still surprised when reading what many people (during the Civil Rights Movement and especially LBJ and MLK) had to endure for the greater good- or their greater good.
Lurleen and George Wallace
Even hard working and kind hearted Muriel Humphrey realized what the power of the first lady could allow. I was also surprised to learn of so much of the Lurleen Wallace story. I knew she had become the first female governor of Alabama though didn’t realize that her doctor and George knew of signs of cancer years before they told her and began treatment that could have saved her life. I knew that George had a bit of a “come to Jesus” at the end of his life though didn’t realize (until after further research) that he awarded the Lurleen Wallace Award of Courage to Vivian Malone, one of the African American students he tried to bar from the University of Alabama in that horrific historic stand-off. He also apologized to the other student James Hood in 1995.
What did you learn about your character that helped to inform your performance?
There have been many books written about Lurleen Wallace from a very diverse group of writers from The Intimate Story of Lurleen Wallace: Her Crusade of Courage by Anita Smith to American Evita: Lurleen Wallace by Janice Law to Lady of Courage The Story of Lurleen Burns Wallace by Jack House to even a book for children Lurleen B. Wallace Alabama’s First Woman Governor by Alice Yeager. Although I learned many facts about her through very official and more nuanced historic/governmental sources, as an actor, I often embraced and found more useful some of the dishier and more personal accounts that talked about everything from her nickname “Mutt,” for following her father around on fishing trips, to her love of coffee and Benson and Hedges and Fire and Ice Revlon lipstick (the latter I have found and have been wearing for Lurleen) to the chapter where she wanted to get a divorce and often took the kids to her parents but was talked out of it by George’s brother and how she would later dismiss such a chapter like a political pro/total spin goddess.
I loved reading about the simple things that brought Lurleen pleasure and when and how she would stand up to George. Although they were in a stronger place (as a couple and financially) in ’63 and ’64, it’s useful to have the backstory to fuel and color and help with when the cracks are revealed. I loved reading about the lesser publicized details about how she (and all the jobs she took!) was instrumental in helping his rise. From creating crib sheets for his days on the bench to working many low level jobs (though some low level government jobs which would ultimately help her actually make some things happen for the mentally ill when she was governor). Often her paycheck was the only thing feeding their young family. It was more than being a helpful wife knocking out breakfast, babies, a smile and a wave!
Hubert and Muriel Humphrey
Of course it’s challenging (as I am a self-proclaimed bleeding heart liberal and very concerned with LBGT rights, women’s rights and minority rights!) to play this woman—even though generous with children, hard-working, compassionate towards mentally ill patients and a cancer sufferer, she also shared George’s beliefs about segregation, at least enough to be as involved as she was and to stay with him. Unlike George she was better loved and respected by Alabamians including African Americans. Do they know something about her REAL beliefs that I wasn’t able to find by examining her actions? Also, I feel I have learned the most about Lurleen through reading notes from her oldest daughter (who had major issues with her father and was extremely devoted to her mother- she was there during their rough chapters before they had any money and when George was running around on Lurleen and possibly hitting her) and dear friend Mary Jo Ventress. I learned about her physicality and speech through her speeches from ’66, videos of her with George during his rallies and an extensive amount of candid and official photographs. Again it’s those shots that reveal the cracks/foreshadowing of something that become most treasured for an actor, or at least for me.
It was a special gift to learn more about Muriel Humphrey. Not since playing Calamity Jane (in ahem the late 80s) have I been able to play someone from my home state of South Dakota. It’s broken my heart to realize how intolerant it’s become about certain rights for women and minorities though try to cherish what was (and in certain parts still is) beautiful and productive when I grew up and the SD that nurtured the likes of Hubert and Muriel! Hubert was born in Wallace, SD, 20 min from my hometown (Webster) and Muriel three hours away in Huron, SD. Although my mother is from Boston, most all my family is in Massachusetts and I’ve lived in D.C. for nearly 20 years, I grew up in Webster, SD— with much of her dialect/rhythms/essence – the earnestness, self-deprecation, sweetness, optimism, kind of corny/cheesiness that she beautifully possesses. I will do my best to honor her spirit and heart. There’s an almost childlike quality to her friendship and love with Hubert. Though she’s not as simple as she may come across.
I root for Muriel. I know what it feels like to arrive in a big city and have to try to figure out the game. And also the realization that sometimes you and others have to compromise to get what you want for the greater good in the end. I understand how sometimes people perceive kindness for weakness. I know what it’s like to want to take care of everyone and make the most out of life. I know what’ it’s like to be laughed at for your earnestness and optimism. I love that she found Hubert. He valued her. He listened to her. He incorporated many of her ideas. They had such a magical and wonderful love story and friendship and partnership. I loved her adoration, respect and love for his ideas. I also loved reading about some of their earlier adventures like hitting a cow on their honeymoon. Apparently they had to pay not only for the damages to Hubert’s father’s car that they borrowed but also to the FARMER even though it was the cow’s fault.
Both women did a lot of thankless work to help their men get what they wanted professionally – how they were treated varied though it’s interesting to examine all the women and other men behind the men.
Humphrey Pins courtesy of Richard Clodfelter
What comments or opinions did you hear from relatives and friends when you told them about this play and the woman you would play?
I was sorry that friends and family didn’t know as much about the wives but knew plenty about George Wallace and Hubert Humphrey! It’s been gratifying to fill in some of the blanks and champion the life of Muriel – and even many of LBJ’s hard working and very intelligent and gifted secretaries through this research and rehearsal process.
How does LBJ’s portrayal in this play compare to the one we saw in the film, Selma? Do you feel seeing the Civil Rights battle from different points of view helps or hinders how succeeding generations interpret history?
I think it’s very helpful to share multiple views.You cannot put an entire man’s life and legacy into three hours. With a man who accomplished so much and was so controversial (positively and negatively) I think it’s productive to have many gifted writers, filmmakers and other artists take a stab at uncovering some of the complex and fascinating layers.
We are in the midst of a presidential campaign. What characteristics attributed to LBJ might the current crop of candidates seek to emulate? What should they avoid?
It seems like some of today’s candidates feel the power of plain speaking and dumbing things down more than ever. (Or perhaps their fans fan the flames/are responsible for lowering the bar.) I do think there’s a time for extra clarity and “keeping it real,” but I also cherish language and a beautifully written, thoughtful, organized and graciously and passionately delivered speech. I’m saddened when it seems to be a detriment/negative to sound and BE educated and reflect complex ideas vs repeating the catchy and often cheeky fifth grade reading level sound bite. At least during his legendary private meetings, LBJ seemed to have the perfect speech for every person he was lobbying. I wonder if that made him less effective when making speeches for the masses. I guess with all of the surveillance and tracking devices, today’s politicians should be wary of what they say in some of the private meetings as well!
Why is it important that this play be staged in DC now?
I think this provocative and powerful play is important to be staged now to remind everyone of the stakes involved (LBJ says in the play, “This is the most important election of your lifetime.”) It will inspire everyone not only to get involved, get educated about the issues and to VOTE but also to take another look at some of the people who fought the very difficult and deadly battles to make a movement happen and change the laws to better the lives of so many Americans.
What has the opportunity to be in this play meant to you? Did you come away changed in any way?
I am incredibly grateful to play a part in examining and exploding this electrifying story with such talented artists and the rockstar team at Arena Stage. I love any play that inspires you to do more, read more and insist on more coverage about those relegated to the footnotes of history, make some noise, honor those whom fought the tough fights for vital freedoms and opportunities. It’s icing on the cake when the same experience can also inspire you to bust a gut from the crackling humor and wit and even bad behavior (thank you, Jack Willis), have your heart gutted and “mm hmm!” (thank you, Bowman Wright) loudly throughout the dazzling history. I also am incredibly honored and invigorated by the collaborative spirit, incredibly high bar, and gracious and generous energy that has infused every part of the process so far. I can’t wait to share the show and experience with everyone! I will forever cherish this journey!