Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Fannie Lou Hamer

All the Way – When Things Got Done in Washington


In his time, Lyndon Johnson had a reputation for being brash, ruthless, and, at times, crude. Compared to what we’ve witnessed in the current presidential campaign, however, even the time LBJ pulled up his shirt to display for the press his scar after gall bladder surgery seems mild. Johnson was known for twisting arms to get things done. He was a master at negotiating when the odds were not in his favor. Yet his penchant to bully those around him (particularly his wife, Lady Bird), rankles. As the target of LBJ’s bouts of anger, Susan Rome shows us the gracious side of this first lady who, nonetheless must have suffered for what she was forced to endure.

Lady Bird

Susan Rome as Lady Bird and Jack Willis as LBJ

All the Way, Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award-winning play, focuses on LBJ’s push to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Arena Stage’s production, expertly directed by Kyle Donnelly, has a tour de force performance by Jack Willis in the title role with a talented and energetic supporting cast. In a city that eats and sleeps politics, particularly presidential politics, All the Way will have no trouble attracting an educated and sophisticated audience. Those who remember LBJ will appreciate the playwright’s attention to historic detail. Everyone else will enjoy history coming alive in an exuberant way.

Except for Willis and Bowman Wright, Jr., who plays Martin Luther King, Jr., the other 15 cast members assume multiple roles. At times the entrances and exits are so swift, it’s a challenge to keep up with the characters. And because the play is presented in the round Fichandler Stage, snippets of dialogue sometimes get lost when actors are facing one direction. Still those are minor quibbles in a production that hits the mark multiple times.


Richard Clodfelter as Hubert Humphrey and Jack Willis as LBJ

Willis, who originated the LBJ role at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, last wowed audiences at Arena with his performance in Sweat. It’s up to him to carry this production and he manages that with ease. There’s certainly a physical similarity between LBJ and Willis, but it’s the way Willis carries himself and dominates the stage that transforms what might have been a mimic into so much more. “Everyone wants power and if they say they don’t they’re lying,” he booms, while grabbing the lapels of then Senator Hubert Humphrey (Richard Clodfelter). Humphrey, of course, was willing to put up with a great deal from Johnson, hoping to be selected as his running mate.

The play opens with Johnson assuming the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (He was sworn in on Air Force One just two hours and eight minutes after JFK’s death.) While Johnson was intent on pushing the passage of civil rights legislation to fulfill JFK’s legacy, he also fervently believed in equal rights. “Nothing will change in this country until Negroes can vote,” he says. Besides winning over Southern Democrats, Johnson worked to convince Republican Senator Everett Dirksen to support the bill.

King and Company

JaBen Early as Stokely Carmichael, David Emerson Tony as Roy Wilkins, Desmond Bing as Bob Moses, Craig Wallace as Ralph Abernathy and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. 

King’s situation is similar to Johnson’s. He must use his persuasive powers to bring together his disparate group of supporters. These include Stokely Carmichael (JaBen Early), Bob Moses (Desmond Bing), Roy Wilkins (David Emerson Toney), and Ralph Abernathy (Craig Wallace). Shannon Dorsey plays King’s wife, Coretta, as well as activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Adrienne Nelson does double duty, playing Humphrey’s wife, Muriel, and Lurleen Wallace, wife of the Alabama governor (played by Cameron Folmar).

Once the legislation is passed, the second act concerns LBJ’s reelection. Even though there was fear about a backlash after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the weak candidacy of Barry Goldwater handed Johnson a landslide victory. The play ends with a celebration, streamers raining down on Johnson who finally won the office in his own way and on his own terms.

Photos by Stan Barouh

All the Way
Fichandler Stage
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth Street, SW

Susan Rome talks about playing Lady Bird Johnson. 

Adrienne Nelson talks about playing Lurleen Wallace and Muriel Humphrey.

Read Shannon Dorsey’s reflections on playing Coretta Scott King.

Shannon Dorsey – Coretta Scott King in Arena’s All the Way


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.

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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.

Susan Rome talks about playing Lady Bird Johnson. 

Adrienne Nelson talks about playing Lurleen Wallace and Muriel Humphrey.

To purchase tickets for All the Way, go to the website for Arena Stage.