When Shannon Dorsey began doing research for her roles in the Tony Award-winning play All the Way, her best sources came from family members who remembered what it was like to live in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s. Back then, D.C. was essentially a southern city where both racism and segregation existed. Against this backdrop, President Lyndon Johnson was focused on passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While LBJ was front and center, there were many players on that political stage. And there will be many actors playing those roles in Arena Stage’s much anticipated production directed by Kyle Donnelly which runs through May 8. Shannon learned about the two women she plays, Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer, a voting and civil rights activist, and found their stories both inspiring and tragic.
We asked Shannon, along with two other actors – Adrienne Nelson, who will play Muriel Humphrey and Lurleen Wallace, and Susan Rome, who will play Lady Bird Johnson – to reflect on their characters and the timeliness of staging Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way now in our nation’s capital.
You are likely not old enough to remember the Civil Rights battle in the 1960s. What research did you do that helped take you back to that historic time?
My first resource is my family. Both sides are native to D.C., with one side going back at least five generations. The other side migrated from North Carolina three or four generations ago. Both sides, being in D.C. for long, will remind you that D.C. was still the South, especially back then. The liberal attitude we see today did not exist for them. What did exist was overt racism, blatant segregation and an overwhelmingly distinct sense of danger when encountering a white person. Some of them were teenagers and young adults during this time and their firsthand accounts gave me a lot of insight to what the climate was like for black people, especially black women. From there, I began to lightly peruse the autobiographies of both women. Then, I began to get more specific – looking for nuances to further feed and shape my own insight.
What have you learned that surprised you the most?
That Coretta was a bona fide tomboy! The story about how she accidentally cut her cousin in the head with an axe is surprising; no one would have ever put Coretta and tomboy in the same sentence. This seemingly surprising information brings a beautiful, unexpected complexity to this larger-than-life icon. I found a picture of her – smiling with a hint of mischief and tawny from playing out in the sun – that further shaped who she could have been as a child. It is one of my favorite pictures of her.
And that in 1961 Fannie Lou Hamer was given a “Mississippi Appendectomy” which is the moniker for unsolicited hysterectomies given to poor black Southern women. Even though it was a common thing in the pre-civil rights South – for some reason I had some surprise that she was victim of this only a few years prior to her famous speech.
What have you learned about your character that helped to inform your performance?
That Fannie and Coretta were warrior women. They fought so that people that look like me can have a better quality of live. They shared the similar qualities – they both sang, they both were mothers (even though Fannie didn’t bear children of her own she did adopt), they both fought for civil rights unabashedly. Coretta was definitely a fashion icon, but like Fannie, she was in poverty even after Martin’s death. They were more than just wives, they were legit fighters in this movement and we would not have been successful without them!
What comments or opinions did you hear from relatives and friends when you told them about this play and the woman you would play?
Usually, there is excitement when I mention Coretta, because she is such a popular household name, and then curiosity if it is Fannie Lou Hamer, because a lot of people have NO idea who she is.
Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Shannon Dorsey as Coretta Scott King. Photo by Stan Barouh
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?
LBJ’s portrayal in both the stage play and the film can provide perspective, and hopefully encourage curiosity to dig more for what could be the truth.
In general, I feel the media can help and hinder – honestly, I feel it is more hurtful that not. Fear mongering has been around for ages, but never have we had such accelerated, instantaneous access to it. Access to information, whether it is correct or otherwise, will not change in this time BUT I hope more people ASK QUESTIONS.
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?
The LBJ in our play is one that decides to do the right thing no matter what. Takes time for him to get there, but the moral energy lies underneath it all. Not idealistic, moral.
They should avoid attitudes of entitlement/privilege, profiting from another subjugation. LBJ says “This is about those who got more, wantin’ to hang on to what they got, at the expense of those who got nothin’. And feel good about it!”
Why is it important that this play be staged in DC now? LBJ says it best in the play, “
Witnessing the beginnings of the fight for Civil Rights, might audience goers be energized to continue that fight? Or disappointed that more has not been accomplished? Both! This play will ignite audiences to instill true reform and will also show how far behind we are.
What has the opportunity to be in this play meant to you? Will you come away changed in any way?
As a D.C. native, I just can’t express how important it is for me to be a part of this play. First, I get to perform at the local theater I have ALWAYS wanted to perform at more than anywhere else in the area, so I am ecstatic and hugging everybody I see. But to play such iconic figures in the same town where legislation happened to give my parents general rights so that I can be born with these rights, is more than a blessing.
Change is the only thing that is constant in the world, so I will definitely, or have definitely, shifted in ways that I do and do not see. But it is awesome. Learning about these women has given me even more to go forward with.