First Ladies often wield power behind the throne. After Nancy Reagan’s death, stories abounded about the influence she had during her husband Ronald Reagan’s presidency. All the Way, Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award-winning drama about Lyndon Johnson’s fight to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, places another First Lady in the spotlight. Susan Rome, familiar to fans of The Wire as DA Ilene Nathan, will make her Arena Stage debut playing Lady Bird Johnson. The production, which will run from April 1 through May 18, will be directed by Kyle Donnelly.
We asked Susan, along with Shannon Dorsey and Adrienne Nelson, who will appear as Coretta Scott King and Lurleen Wallace, respectively, about playing historic figures during what was such a tumultuous time in America. Susan Rome’s answers are below. Answers by Shannon and Adrienne will appear soon.
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?
I was born during the Johnson presidency, a month before the election depicted in the play. I remember the day Johnson died…We had gone to DC for the day, to go to the Smithsonian. I was eight years old, sitting in the car with the radio on, when the news came on…
My parents were ardent Civil Rights and anti-war supporters, and I recall marching with them, being carried on my father’s shoulders. I don’t recall their opinion of LBJ, but do recall that they had a copy of the satirical play “MacBird!” on their bookshelf.
Susan, age five, at a Peace March in 1970
After being cast as Lady Bird last summer, I had some time in my schedule to go down to Austin to visit the LBJ Ranch – which has a wealth of information regarding the Civil Rights Act and LBJ’s relationship with Dr. King. I spent a day with archivists and researchers at the LBJ Museum and Library on the campus of UT. I love history and researching roles, and was fortunate to have great access to recordings, documents, photos and artifacts, as well as conversations with historians whose life’s work is all things LBJ. Also, I read Betty Boyd Caroli’s brand-new book, Lady Bird and Lyndon: The Hidden Story of a Marriage that Made a President. It is brilliantly researched and was an invaluable resource.
I watched videos, listened to countless recordings of Lady Bird’s voice (including the lovely audio description she did at the Johnson Memorial Grove near Boundary Channel), LBJ’s phone conversations, Lynda and Luci’s recollections of their mother, did a drive-by of the Johnson residence on 30th Place NW in DC…
I also read Katharine Graham’s Personal History and listened to audio recordings of her conversations with LBJ. Incredible woman.
What have you learned that surprised you the most?
Specifically regarding Lady Bird, much of what the public perception is centers around her “beautification” work. She didn’t like that term; thought it too cosmetic. She cared deeply about how our physical environment reflects our inner state of being, and wanted to transform the least picturesque areas of the country (inner cities and interstates) to reflect a pride of self and place.
What have you learned about your character that helped to inform your performance?
Lady Bird is often perceived and portrayed as being completely subservient to and bullied by her husband. I have learned that she was a pragmatist and almost completely without pretense. She was very self-aware and yet shy. She was a bright, well-educated business-woman, yet with a Southern gentility. She was a survivor; her mother died when she was five years old, and her father was quite absent. She understood Lyndon, and was able to support him in his aspirations and through his moments of crippling self-doubt. She knew exactly how to handle Lyndon, giving him her version of the “Johnson Treatment”! She was a First Lady much more in the mold of Eleanor Roosevelt (whom she admired greatly) than in the style of Mamie Eisenhower.
Susan in Lady Bird’s shower
Having stood in her bathroom (I was even invited to stand in her shower!), sat in her husband’s chair, and been surrounded by her clothes, I feel that I can access the superficial things that lend verisimilitude to my “Lady Bird.”
I want to get the details right. She was a great and good lady.
What comments or opinions did you hear from relatives and friends when you told them about this play and the woman you would play?
People have been delighted for me in terms of the professional opportunity (my first role at Arena Stage), and other than being referred to as the “Brown Wren of Texas” by one friend, I have heard not a disparaging word!
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 did not see Selma, but I understand that his portrayal was not entirely accurate. One of the things I asked about when I was down in Austin was LBJ’s passion for Civil Rights. Was it out of political expediency (did he want to be “on the right side of history”) or sincere belief in racial equality? What I learned was that, as a young teacher in a Mexican school in Cotulla, Texas, he was profoundly impacted by the role that extreme poverty plays in denying opportunity to minorities in this country, and that he was viscerally in favor of Civil Rights.
Lady Bird’s closet
The role that J. Edgar Hoover had in all of the political machinations cannot be over-stated. He had so much dirt on everybody that LBJ had to manage him with kid gloves.
It is essential to view history with a clear sense of context. In this way we can understand various points of view, and can appreciate those who had the courage of their convictions.
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?
LBJ was a consummate politician; he had a profound understanding and respect for the democratic process. He was a master manipulator.
I am not a psychologist, but if LBJ were in the political arena today, he may not have the career he had. His episodes of generosity and pragmatism contrasted with his bullying, offensive behavior and his crippling self-doubt might have landed him on a psychiatrist’s couch with a psychotropic cocktail on his bed-side table. He was a brilliant political operative with a folksy, authentic flare.
Susan in Austin, Texas
In terms of this current crop, on the Republican side, the art of discourse is officially dead. It seems that many of our current candidates view the American people as idiotic lemmings (no offense to lemmings). LBJ had a very early-mid 20th century view of women — retrogressive and objectifying, to say the least. The current group should avoid that. Definitely. Absolutely.
Why is it important that this play be staged in D.C. now?
This is precisely what is so exciting for me. To tell this story, now, in this place? Civil rights, equal protection under the law…It is staggering to believe, that on the heels of eight years under our first African-American Commander-in-Chief, an administration with barely a blemish, that we are, as a country, so mired in racial fear and hatred. It is shameful and causes me a lot of sadness. Here we are, 50 years after the events of this play, and it seems that we are even more polarized in some ways. That race is such a huge issue today is indicative of how far we still have to go in terms of mutual understanding and removal of fear of “otherness.” This story, in an election year, in Washington? Required viewing…
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?
My son said to me two years ago, on MLK Day (he was eight), “Mom, don’t wait for change; BE the change.” We can never give up, we can never be silent. We must each do what we can. I hope that the audience leaves the theater energized and optimistic, and a little bit less comfortable about how things are.
What has the opportunity to be in this play meant to you? Will you come away changed in any way?
I am almost always deeply impacted by the work I do. Telling this story, now, with this brilliant creative team…I am honored to be a part of this play (which is more than that — it is a theatrical event, really!). I am sure that it will energize me to do all I can to get the VOTE out in November.
To purchase tickets for All the Way, go to the website for Arena Stage.