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.

Ken Burns

The Post Makes the Case for a Free Press


Timing is everything, and Steven Spielberg’s The Post could not have come out at a more ideal time. While there are those who would attack the Washington Post and other news organizations with pejorative terms like “fake news,” the film dramatizes why our country needs a free and unfettered press. While the New York Times proclaims on its front page “All the news that’s fit to print,” the Washington Post doesn’t pull punches with its declaration that “Democracy dies in darkness.” 

Risking everything to publish stories based on the purloined Pentagon Papers – the publisher, editors, and reporters could have been charged and jailed – the Washington Post claimed it’s rightful place as a national newspaper. Katharine Graham, who became publisher after her husband, Philip, committed suicide, allowed the paper to print, even though her board of directors warned that she could jeopardize the paper’s financial future. In making the decision to go ahead, Graham finally asserts her authority and makes the paper truly her own.

Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks

Coming on the heels of The Vietnam War, Ken Burns’ exhaustive series for PBS, the film underscores that four presidents, from Truman through Johnson, continually misled the public about U.S. operations in Vietnam. In fact, while the government insisted that the war was being won, behind the scenes those in charge had declared the war unwinnable. President Nixon, who didn’t want to be humiliated losing a war, kept up the deception. 

The film opens in 1969, in the jungles of Vietnam. The war is still raging, claiming both American and Vietnamese lives. Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a former Marine working as a military analyst at the Rand Corporation, is sent to Vietnam as an observer and sees firsthand that things are not going well. While flying back to Washington on a government plane, Ellsberg is asked for his opinion by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). If Ellsberg is surprised when McNamara agrees with his assessment, he’s even more surprised when McNamara faces the press after the flight and delivers an upbeat assessment that the war is being won.

Ellsburg, already disillusioned, makes the decision to photocopy 7,000 pages of confidential documents that reveal what the government has been hiding for more than four decades about the war. After failing to generate any interest from the members of Congress, Ellsberg, in 1971, contacts Neil Sheehan, who had been covering the war for the New York Times. Sheehan and his editors recognized the importance of the papers immediately. A team was put together, and for three months they holed up in a hotel, poring over the papers and deciding how best to tell the story.

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee

The absence of Sheehan’s byline for several months does not go unnoticed by Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Hanks plays Bradlee as the quintessential newspaper man and a fierce competitor. Even though the Times was recognized as the only truly national newspaper in the country, and one whose journalistic credentials far outweighed the Post’s, Bradlee is not about to play second fiddle. He gives an intern $40 with instructions to hop a train to New York and attempt to find out what Sheehan is working on. While the intern doesn’t learn the whole story, he does see a mock-up of the next day’s Times with practically the entire front page blocked out for Sheehan’s story. Bradlee knows the Times has something big and braces for the scoop.

Meanwhile, Katharine Graham is about to face a group of bankers, a first step in her quest to take the paper public to raise much needed cash. Meryl Streep does what she does best: transforming herself into the character, in this case a middle-aged woman plagued with self doubt who is about to take her place on the national stage. Although Graham has rehearsed with Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), the Post’s chairman, she’s tongue-tied when before the bankers. Streep manages to capture Graham’s insecurities in subtle ways, with facial expressions and hand gestures. During the meeting, she actually seems to shrink in size. Despite her lackluster presentation, the offering succeeds and the company will have the cash it needs to go forward.

Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee), David Cross (Howard Simons), John Rue (Gene Patterson), Bob Odenkirk (Ben Bagdikian), Jessie Mueller (Judith Martin), and Philip Casnoff (Chalmers Roberts) 

On June 13, 1971, Bradlee’s fears are realized when the Times comes out with its first story about the Pentagon Papers, making the Post’s front page feature of Tricia Nixon’s wedding seem trivial. Three days later, however, the Nixon administration, citing national security, asks a federal court for an injunction preventing the Times from publishing any further stories. Although the injunction is granted, other newspapers jump in, trying to gain access to the documents.

One of the Post’s writers, Ben Bagdikian (a terrific Bob Odenkirk), has a hunch the papers came from Ellsberg, whom he once worked with at the Rand Corporation. Ellsberg, hiding out in a Boston motel, agrees to give the papers to Bagdikian. The reporter flies back to D.C., and the team gathers at Bradlee’s Georgetown home for some heavy reading.

The Times had more than three months to digest the papers. The Post’s team has far less time. The Herculean effort results in a story, but elation is short-lived when one of the newspaper’s attorneys says that the injunction could be a big problem if the Post’s source was also the Times’ source. If the paper defies the injunction and publishes, the risk would be great. Besides possible jail time for Graham, Bradlee, and others, board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), warns that the newspaper’s recent public offering could be in danger. This is the turning point for Kay Graham, and Streep handles this scene beautifully, allowing us first to see her hesitation, but then her determination to do the right thing. 

Howard Simons (David Cross), Frederick “Fritz” Beebe (Tracy Letts), Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), Chalmers Roberts (Philip Casnoff), Paul Ignatius (Brent Langdon), Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon, seated). 

The Post’s first story runs on June 18. Unlike in the Times’ case, the Justice Department’s request for an injunction is turned down by a federal judge in D.C. Before the case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, several other newspapers, including the Boston Globe and the Chicago Sun-Times, also publish stories. In a 6-3 decision on June 30, the court reverses the injunction. In the decision, Justice Hugo Black writes: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham

Graham is transformed by the experience. Not only has she firmly grasped the reins as the newspaper’s publisher, but she understands that she cannot allow her responsibility to be affected by the personal friendships she once enjoyed with those in power. (After reading the Pentagon Papers, she confronts McNamara about his deception regarding the war, reminding him that her son is still in Vietnam fighting.) 

Graham and Bradlee are now a team. While Graham expresses the hope that the battle is now behind them, we know that an even greater challenge is ahead, one that will bring down a president. 

Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

The Royale – A Knockout!


Imagine a play centered on boxing in which not a single punch visibly connects to a body, yet we feel every blow, in which character drives narrative and racially based conflict is without cliché. Playwright Marco Ramirez’s tightly written, enthralling “six rounds” are insightfully penned and placed in historical context based on actual events. The beautifully acted piece is helmed by inspired Director Rachel Chavkin, resulting in one of the most original productions I’ve seen in some time. Don’t shy away because of subject matter.

“And now the fight you came for. The fight you paid your well earned green for…” barks promoter Max (John Lavelle). Circuit boxer Jay Johnson (Khris Davis) is taking on a newbie nicknamed “Fish” (McKinley Belcher III). As he taunts the amateur with oddly benevolent good humor, we hear interjections by Max and trainer, Wynton (Clarke Peters). These are punctuated by the men’s synchronized claps which come and go within narrative like a Greek chorus.

Khris Davis and Clarke Peters

Instead of contact sport, we see the men move around sharing internal dialogue. “…Focus!…He’s all talk, He ain’t nothing…Breathe, Don’t lock…What’s that taste? Spit. Blood…a lamb to slaughter…” When blows connect, the aggressor literally stomps. Fish’s knock-out is indicated by Max and Wynton lifting and dropping the two heavy posts with rope between (one side of the ring) BOOM! One reflexively recoils.

His camp, admiring Fish’s perseverance and recognizing his potential, hire the boy as a sparring partner.

Jay Johnson is determined to fight the current World Heavyweight Champion who has since retired. Max insists he should continue outside the system, where, by greasing palms, he’s managed to provide a decent life. His fighter threatens to find another promoter.

When the deal is negotiated, against advice, Johnson agrees to give up 90 percent of the take “win or lose” for a shot at the title. The fight will be unprecedented – a black man in the ring with a white champ. Both current prejudice and the protagonist’s character are skillfully illuminated at a press conference.

Khris Davis, McKinley Belcher III, Clarke Peters

Discovering that guns and knives have been confiscated at the entrance to his fights, Johnson realizes a level of personal danger that apparently never occurred to him. Still, there’s no question of aborting the match. On the night of the event, however, his sister Nina (Montego Glover) unexpectedly shows up with evidence of threats to the family. She insists they’re already proud and wants him to walk away. We learn what may fuel Johnson’s anger and tenacity.

A conversation with Wynton, wherein reference to the play’s title becomes clear, wisely does not resolve Johnson’s thinking. Once in the ring, he’s told, you’re alone.

The fight itself is brilliantly conceived. Johnson’s demons actively confront him in a way you won’t be able to imagine without the clumsy help of a reviewer (not me). What ensues is emotionally painful and utterly gripping. Consequences are also wonderfully manifest with a pithy but not heavy handed touch.

sisMontego Glover, Khris Davis

There isn’t a weak link in the company. Though Max could be successfully portrayed as more exaggerated a character, actor John Lavelle is believable both with florid announcing and concern about the business of the business. McKinley Belcher III (Fish) is fully dimensional and entirely sympathetic, especially when encountering his first taste of luxury. As Wynton, Clarke Peters contributes palpably sage gravitas which balances volatility around him.

Montego Glover’s Nina is proud, stubborn, and articulate. (Ramirez has chosen to make the fighter and his sibling appear rather educated, a state not shared by the people on whom they were based. Perhaps, in fact, they were well spoken.) In her final scene, she spits well-aimed fire, then remains a potent presence.

Khris Davis’s powerful personification of Jay Johnson will resonate after applause dies out. The extremely fit thespian moves like a boxer. Davis tempers Johnson’s ego, inhabits his determination, and shares his thinking process with nuanced timing. The fact of his strength feels as true as eventual wrenching doubts. It’s manifestation of a whole man, “clarity of self in a hostile world.”

Director Rachel Chavkin (whose quote is just above), has taken a fine play and made it more compelling. Not only are her actors explicitly persuasive, but Chavkin’s creative interpretation is theatrically remarkable. Choreography embodying both internal and external battle is unique and accomplished. When actual boxing is depicted, practice is obvious. Synchronized sounds are vividly expressive. Staging area is aesthetically utilized.

orig boxerJack Johnson, on whom Jay is based

Nick Vaughan’s excellent set is comprised entirely of light wood slatted walls, floor and barriers on several well employed levels. Period gym lights and a wall of what appear to be fluorescents are graphic. Beginning with only two posts and a single side of roped ring, we tellingly progress to an entirely enclosed area at the final arena.

Costumes by Dede M. Ayite are low key and meticulously realized. Lighting by Austin R. Smith greatly enhances mood. The fighter’s giant shadow during one scene is especially redolent.

pageThe ‘Real’ Big Fight

A terrific, part fictional biopic, The Royale was inspired by Jack Johnson, the first African American World Heavyweight boxing champion (1908-1915). ‘The Galveston Giant’ triumphed, against all odds, in the era of Jim Crow. Because of racial tension, both guns and alcohol were prohibited at his bouts. The win itself resulted in outbreaks of bigoted violence that resulted in the deaths of at least twenty people.

Johnson left school early, ricocheting between jobs. As apprentice to a carriage painter who loved boxing, he caught the bug and began to spar on the side. Along his journey, while otherwise employed, the young man roomed with several fighters. He entered the profession a defensive boxer at twenty and at thirty became champion.

By all reports an entertaining personality, Johnson also played the vaudeville circuit with stories and demonstrations and was one of the first celebrity sports figures garnering endorsement contacts.

Much of the population was uncomfortable with a black man in his position. Fixing on Johnson’s preference for white women as an excuse, local government saw to it that he was arrested on trumped up charges relating to The Mann Act “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.” He was convicted by an all white jury and fled the country for seven years only to be clapped in prison upon his return. Johnson nonetheless returned to boxing and was active until the age of sixty accruing 73 wins.

Performance Photos by T. Charles Erickson
Opening: McKinley Belcher III, John Lavelle, Clarke Peters, Khris Davis

 If interested, check out: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, the 2004 Ken Burns documentary.

Lincoln Center Theater presents
The Royale by Marco Ramirez
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Through May 1, 2016
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater