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.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Shelia Moses – Narrating the Black Experience


“I was born with stories.”

During the 2007 National Book Festival, Shelia Moses took the stage at the Library of Congress. Before she read from one of her books, The Baptism, Shelia reflected on the long journey that had brought her to that moment. “My load is heavy because I brought my ancestors with me,” she said. “It took us 300 years to get here.” She honored two important women in her life, her grandmother and her mother. As Shelia’s rich voice resonated throughout the hall, those in the audience, including President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, were clearly moved by her words. It turned out that President Bush was familiar with Shelia’s books. At a private reception, he told her: “I love Luke and Leon.” That comment still amazes and pleases Shelia. “Did the president of the United States just name the characters in my book?” Shelia says with a laugh. “He liked the book! So he wasn’t just laughing because he thought it was funny. He really liked the book.”

Shelia reading at the Library of Congress

The Baptism is just one of Shelia’s books that have earned her a diverse and loyal following. Drawing from the many stories from relatives and friends that she heard growing up, Shelia has become an impressive and influential narrator of the black experience. She began her writing career as the co-author of comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory’s memoir, Callus on My Soul, and her most recent book, The Dick Gregory Story, published this February, is aimed at a young adult audience. With Bill Duke, she wrote Dark Girls, the companion volume to the acclaimed documentary. And she has written and is producing two plays based on her books, I, Dred Scott and The Legend of Billy Bush. When she’s not writing, Shelia keeps a busy schedule speaking and teaching workshops for writers.

Shelia, the ninth of ten children, was born and raised in Rich Square, North Carolina. “It’s peanut country, cotton country,” she says. “I grew up, not on a farm, but we grew up farming, working for the farmers in the area.” Shelia’s maternal grandfather, Braxton Jones, was a farmer, but he refused to sharecrop for white landowners, an arrangement that would have required his children also to work on those farms. “My mother loves to tell the story of how people would come to the house and say, `Braxton, can the children work?’ and he would leave it up to them,” says Shelia. “If they wanted to work and make money, then that was their decision. I thought that was incredible.”

The Jones property, where Shelia and her siblings were raised and where her mother continues to live, was purchased by Braxton for $3,000 in 1956. “He was smart enough to deed the land out to the heirs of the Jones family, so that means the land can never be sold,” she says. “He was ahead of his time.” Shelia was only about five years-old when Braxton died. “The only thing I remember was the funeral because there was so much sadness.” She learned about him through the many stories told by others. “Even now, people can still tell you a great Braxton Jones story,” she says. “My grandfather was a hell of a man. He’s really like a legend to me.” Her company, Braxton Publishing, honors his memory.

Braxton’s wife, Babe, outlived him and was a formidable woman in her own right. “She was something,” says Shelia. “She would go to the grocery store and take a chair and sit and the store owner would have to bring her the meats and have her look at them. And she’d let him know if she wanted them. My grandmother was different from the other African-Americans on Rehoboth Road. People at home, including my family, were very poor. She had her Braxton Jones stash.” She also was one of the few blacks to have a phone and neighbors often showed up to use it.

When Shelia was 14, she began spending summers in New Jersey where her brother, Daniel, and sister, Barbara, lived.  “He would take us to New York,” Shelia says. “I’ll never forget seeing New York and the lights – it was just like magic. I had never been in a movie theater before and I saw this movie, Sparkle, about these three black girls who wanted more.” The seed was planted.

“Back then I was tall and thin so I wanted to be a model,” Shelia says. One of her friends, Tina, wanted to be a designer, so they came up with a plan that Tina would design the clothes and Shelia would model them. “But my mom said, `you are not going to modeling school. You are going to college like the rest of these children.’” (Six out of ten of the Moses children went to college and Shelia credits her older sister, who made many sacrifices for that to happen.) “My mother probably saved my life,” Shelia says, noting that she attended Shaw University in Raleigh on a Migrant Seasonal Farmer Scholarship. “I loved Shaw,” she says. “The principal of my high school, and most of the people in that area, went to Shaw. So Shaw meant something to us other than just as a university.”

Shelia’s degree is in psychology, but she has always been a writer. “I was writing poems in first grade, and in second grade, plays,” she says. After graduation, she went to John Marshall Law School for one year – “definitely not for me” – and then launched her own business as an agent. Dick Gregory was one of her first clients. Others included Danny Glover, the actor, Willie Stargell, of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Edwin Moses, the Olympic track star. “I was the liaison between the colleges and universities to book their speaking engagements,” she explains. Gregory, who had already written his autobiography, Nigger, was due to write another book. When the search for a co-author proved futile, Gregory finally said to Sheila, “Every time I call you, you are writing. Write the damn book and call me when you finish.” For Callus on My Soul, they received a $25,000 advance from Longstreet Press, a small publishing company in Atlanta. “That’s how I became a professional writer,” Shelia says.

In 1995, the Internet was in its infancy, so Shelia had to research her subject firsthand. “I was following him around, talking to his family, and neighbors,” she says. “I would go with him on trips and we would just talk all night. I had the big tape recorder and the whole nine yards. It took two years to get that information.” Those she interviewed for the book included Congressman John Lewis and Melvin Van Peoples. “But the greatest interview of all, other than Dick Gregory himself, was walking down the street with Ozzie Davis,” pausing in front of the Apollo Theater, she remembers, regretful that she didn’t record the moment in a photo.

Shelia at one of the many events for young people

Gregory is now 84 years-old and, thanks to the Internet, is seeing a resurgence in popularity with young people  “You have this old gray-haired guy who is saying the same things they are saying,” she says. “He says it in a different way, but to them they probably think he’s the hippest cat on the Internet. He still speaks their language.”

Gregory remains relevant because, besides still doing comedy, he is a real civil rights leader. “He’s not afraid to die,” says Shelia. “He was never afraid to die. He would still lay his life down for what is right. When things go wrong in this country, you still see Dick Gregory. His head is as white as snow now, but he’s still on the front line. And he’s still not afraid to die. He’s still willing to get his tail whipped.”

The Internet has also raised the visibility of other civil rights leaders. “Twenty years ago, if a teacher said write a story about a civil rights leader, students went to the media center to get a book and saw Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X,” Shelia says. Now if a student types in “civil rights leader,” many other names pop up including, besides Gregory, Andrew Young and C.T. Vivian.

As a child, Shelia never tired of hearing her grandmother’s stories which continue to spark ideas for her books. “Babe Jones couldn’t read or write, but she could tell a grand story,” Shelia says. “She would sit on the front porch and tell all these different things that happened in her past.” One story was about Buddy Bush, a 24 year-old black man who came home after fighting in World War II. “Walking down the street, he passed a white woman, touched her by accident at the shoulder and somehow that turned into attempted rape,” she says. Klan members, broke Buddy out of jail, plotting to kill him. He escaped and ran into the swamp. After hiding out for two days, the black masons took him to Virginia. “It was a big story,” says Shelia. “The London Times came to our little town, writing about him. The governor got involved. He became legendary.”

While she was collecting information about Buddy Bush, Shelia was also working on her own coming-of-age story, growing up in a small southern town surrounded by racial segregation and tension. She ended up combining the two. “I made him my uncle and I told the story through the eyes of a little girl, Pattie Mae,” Shelia says. The Legend of Buddy Bush won a Coretta Scott King Honor Award.

Shelia’s book, Dark Girls, came about after she saw the documentary of the same name directed by Bill Duke. The subject matter, racial discrimination among black women based on the darkness of their skin, struck a chord with Shelia. “A lot of the women say to me that they receive more racism from their own community,” she says. “I just think that goes back to slavery, that white people let those light-skinned people in the house and the black people in the field and that was where that divide started.”

Shelia called Duke and the two of them collaborated on the book which features a radiant Lupita Nyong’o on the cover and interviews with women of all ages, as well as celebrities like Vanessa Williams, Sheryl Underwood, Judge Mablean, and Loretta Devine. “It was a great experience,” says Shelia, whose narrative runs alongside photography by Barron Claiborne. “I have a sister who is a light girl, so she’s probably never thought about color. Then I have brown sisters and dark sisters and I’m a brown girl. To hear people say, `well, she’s cute, but she’s dark,’ I did not have that experience. So it was a lesson for me as a black woman. I was really hurt by some of those stories.”

The topic so engaged Shelia that she is working on a new book about black men titled Chocolate, African American Men Who Made A Difference. “It’s a collection of stories about dark-skinned men and their journey, not just because their skin is dark, but from being a black man in America period,” she says.

While most of Shelia’s books have been published by traditional houses, she will publish Chocolate under her own imprint, Braxton Publishing. Besides The Dick Gregory Story, other Braxton Jones titles include a 10th anniversary edition of Sallie Gal and the Wall-a-kee Man, a YA novel first published by Scholastic, about a young girl growing up in North Carolina enthralled with hair ribbons. Shelia also is working on her two plays. I, Dred Scott, a one-man show, will first be staged in St. Louis. “That was where Dred Scott walked the streets,” she says. The Legend of Buddy Bush will first be seen in North Carolina. “When you’re doing these things, you need to go back to where they belong,” she says, but adds, “If Hamilton can go to Broadway, then Dred Scott can go to Broadway.”

To purchase Shelia’s books visit mosesbooks.org.

Also, click to go to her Facebook page.

All photos courtesy of Shelia Moses.

Five Films Directed by Women


International Women’s Day is March 8th. In the spirit of the occasion, it seems appropriate to consider watching a movie with a woman director. Sadly, at present, this is a limited field, nevertheless we have found five worthy contenders and hope to see far, FAR more in the future.

The Piano (1993) Written and directed by New Zealand’s own Jane Campion, this romantic drama starring Holly Hunter as a mute piano player and widowed mother who becomes entangled in a convoluted love triangle with Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel. It made over $140 million worldwide on a seven million dollar budget, was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three; Best Actress for Holly Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin, and Best Original Screenplay for Campion. Campion also became the first and thus far only woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. She would later go on to direct the award winning romantic drama Bright Star, as well as write and direct the TV mystery/drama series Top Of the Lake starring Elisabeth Moss in a role that’s won her a Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award.

Monsoon Wedding (2001) Directed by Indian born Mira Nair this romantic comedy details various entanglements and dramas taking place during a traditional Punjabi Hindu wedding in Delhi. Along the way we are treated to song and dance numbers as well as a number of observations about life in Modern 21st Century India and Punjabi culture. The movie was nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival making Nair only the second Indian to win in that category. Nair would go on to direct such films as The Namesake (nominated for a Gotham Award and Independent Spirit Award), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (for which Nair won The Bridge, The German Film Award for Peace), and Queen of Katwe (nominated for four NAACP Image Awards and Winner of Best Family Film by Women Film Critics Circle.)

Lost In Translation (2003) Written and directed by Sofia Coppola (daughter of the legendary Francis Ford Coppola), this bittersweet comedy starring Bill Murray (in a role that many considered to be his best work to date and which launched a career renaissance for him) as a washed up movie star who connects with young, unhappy, newlywed Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson in her breakout role). The movie was a huge breakout success earning over a $100 million on a four million dollar budget. Johannson and Murray each received BAFTA Awards. The film garnered four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. Coppola actually won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Sofia would later become the first American woman to win the Golden Lion the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival for 2010’s Somewhere which she also wrote and directed.

The Hurt Locker (2009) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days). This war thriller about an Iraqi bomb squad starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty is one of the most suspenseful and grittiest war movies ever made with an incredible emphasis on the psychological toll of combat. It’s so intense and realistic you can almost taste sand in your mouth during one particular sequence. It was universally acclaimed by critics and went on to win six Academy Awards including Best Picture. Bigelow won the award for Best Director and as of this date The Hurt Locker remains the first movie directed by a woman to win either Best Director or Best Picture. Bigelow would go on to direct Zero Dark Thirty which would be nominated for five Oscar awards including Best Picture.

Selma (2014) Directed by Ava DuVernay. While DuVernay was the first African American woman to win the Sundance Film Festival Award for Best Director for her feature film Middle of Nowhere, it was this historical drama starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. based on the real life voting marches from Selma to Montgomery,that helped her truly rise to prominence. With Selma, DuVernay became the first African American woman to be nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Director as well as the black female director to have her film nominated by the Academy for Best Picture. In 2017, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for her film 13th examining race and mass incarceration in the U.S. She’s currently working on directing on an adaption of A Wrinkle in Time for Disney with a budget exceeding $100 million making DuVernay the first black woman to direct a live action film with a budget of such size.

Top photo: Bigstock

A United Kingdom – An Interracial Marriage that Rocked an Empire


Their romance begins innocently enough. Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and her sister, Muriel (Laura Carmichael, Edith from Downton Abbey), attend an event at the London Society Mission, where they dance with foreigners who are attending colleges in England. Ruth exchanges glances with one of the students, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), and soon they are dancing and talking about their mutual love of jazz. Although not the jazz played by Brits, Ruth jokes. The relationship continues. They share 78 LPs, dance at other venues, and take long moonlit walks.

Seretse  is not a regular student, but a king, in line to ascend to the throne in the African country Bechuanaland. When he shares his status with Ruth, she takes the news as a sign that their romance is over. Instead Seretse proposes, bending down on one knee, the blinking lights along the River Thames providing the perfect romantic backdrop. He tells her to think about it, stressing that her life will drastically change. She’s made up her mind, however, and accepts on the spot.


The opposition begins to line up. Ruth’s father, George (Nicholas Lyndhurst), is outraged, telling Ruth she will bring shame to the family. If she goes ahead with the marriage, he says, he won’t see her again. Equally furious about the impeding union is Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene), the regent of the Bangwatho Kingdom, who has raised his nephew since the death of his parents. Taking a white woman as his queen, the uncle emphasizes to his nephew, will endanger his reign and throw the country into turmoil.

The most strident voice against the marriage comes from the British government, since Bechuanaland is a protectorate under British control. By 1931, South Africa was no longer part of the British Empire, but because of that country’s mineral resources, maintaining economic ties remained important to Britain. In 1948, the South African government’s National Party instituted the segregation policy that became known as apartheid and put pressure on the British government to prevent an interracial royal marriage in Bechuanaland, its neighbor to the north.

Love wins out and the couple, accompanied by Ruth’s sister and some of Seretse’s friends, ties the knot in a small ceremony. Soon they are on a plane to Africa, Ruth thrilled by the scenes below of widebeasts and giraffes fleeing across the terrain. On the ground, the couple is angrily confronted by Tshekedi, his wife, Ella (Abena Ayivor), and Seretse’s sister, Naledi (Terry Pheto). While Tshekedi’s attack is aimed at his nephew, the two women target Ruth, telling her she will never be accepted by them or by anyone in Bechuanaland.


But with the people assembled, Seretse delivers a heartfelt speech, emphasizing that he loves his country, his people, but also his wife and cannot rule without her. (Those watching The Crown on Netflix will no doubt recognize that argument from Edward, Duke of Windsor, who said he could not rule without Wallis Simpson by his side. He was forced to abdicate.) Seretse’s address succeeds in winning over his subjects, but his problems are not over. British government officials demand that Seretse come to London to settle the dispute between him and his uncle. Once in England, however, Seretse is forbidden to return to his country. Thus begins many years of struggle where Seretse and Ruth fight to be reunited and for him to assume his responsibilities.

Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), the British government representative to Southern Africa, relishes giving bad news to Seretse, prolonging his suffering, even causing him to miss the birth of his daughter. The crisis becomes a political football in Parliament, with some opposing how Britain is interfering in African affairs for financial gain. The discovery of diamonds in Bechuanaland raises the stakes on all sides. Seretse wants to make sure his people profit from the mining of that resource.

The film is based on the true story of Seretse and Ruth. He went on to become the first elected president of the new country, Botswanna. Ruth won over her detractors, fighting for racial inequality and working for many charitable causes during her lifetime.

Directed by Amma Asante who also directed Belle, the film was shot in London and on location in Botswanna. The script is by Guy Hibbert adapted from the book Colour Bar by Susan Williams. Cinematography by Sam McCurdy, is spectacular.

Some of the supporting cast emerge as caricatures, particularly Davenport and Tom Fenton (bad boy Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films), who overdoes his role as a sinister British official. The two leads, however, are not only solid, but a joy to watch as their romance unfolds, hits speed bumps, and then triumphs. Oyelowo and Pike have real chemistry on screen, whether they are dancing in their bedroom, the music heard only faintly from another room, or talking on the phone, their separation exacting a toll.


As Ruth, Rosamund Pike silently absorbs the blows from her new in-laws, a sign not of weakness but of strength. She’s confident in the love she has for her husband, and in his love for her. Through her deeds – taking on labor-intensive work in the village, placing her trust in local doctors, and nursing her newborn daughter alongside village women – she slowly begins to win over even her fiercest enemies, particularly Seretse’s sister, Naledi. (A wonderful performance by Pheto.)

Oyelowo first demonstrated his skills at playing great orators in his performance as Martin Luther King, Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. This film takes advantage of that talent, giving him several moments where he displays his ability to engage those around him with his words. Yet in the more intimate scenes, whether making a stand against his uncle or taking in the bad news delivered by a supercilious government official, Oyelowo shows another side of Seretse, a leader who despairs that he may never get that chance to lead, not for his own glory, but to lift up his people. It’s an extraordinary performance.

Photos by Stanislav Honzik. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Bas Dreisinger’s Incarceration Nations – Re-Imagining Criminal Justice Reform


In an October 2014 edition of The New Yorker, Jennifer Gonnerman wrote about sixteen-year-old Bronx resident, Kaleif Browder, who, in the spring of 2010, was sent to Rikers for allegedly stealing a backpack. After three years – two of them in solitary confinement – his case was dropped due to lack of evidence. Kaleif returned home a shattered nineteen-year-old. Two years later he committed suicide. Sadly, Kaleif’s story is not unique.

As the human tragedy that America’s courts have inflicted upon so many of our citizens comes into ugly focus, the call to reform the criminal justice system may be reaching a tipping point. President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan recently went on record vowing to work together on a reform plan during the President’s last year in office. Let’s hope they can.

The United States has five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the prison population, most of them poor, vulnerable and minorities. Shockingly, not even China, with a population four times larger, comes close to our percentages. In fact, according to a recent National Research Council report, the one country whose prison rates are estimated to equal or exceed ours is North Korea.

Arriving at this propitious moment is Baz Dreisinger’s new book, Incarceration Nations. An Associate Professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and founder of the innovative Prison-to-College Pipeline program, Dreisinger knows first hand the human faces, and family heartbreak behind the statistics.

In an effort to re-think America’s punitive model of justice, Dreisinger turned a recent sabbatical into a bold quest. She visited prisons in nine countries – Uganda, Rawanda, South Africa, Jamaica, Brazil, Austraila, Thailand, Singapore and Norway – engaging whenever possible with inmates through drama workshops, art and writing classes, and restorative justice programs. She hoped her experience would deliver a shock to her system and help her imagine what true reform might look like. How were other countries managing their prisons? What was working? What was not?

Dreisinger_IncarcerationNationsIn Thailand she directed women prisoners as they acted out the scenarios that landed many of them in prison: serving as drug mules for their boyfriends. Deep in the Rwanda hillside, she worked with genocide survivors who forgave then welcomed back into the community the perpetrators who, nineteen years ago, slaughtered their neighbors. In Uganda’s notoriously over crowded prison system, where there are no toilets and human beings are crammed together like sardines, she led a writing workshop where inmates wrote about childhoods filled with poverty and abuse. And in Brazil’s Penitenciária Federal de Catanduvas, the country’s first supermax, she met Carlos who compared his solitary confinement (an American export started by Quakers) to the feeling of being buried alive.

Dreisinger’s first person narrative reads, to great effect, like a series of ominous set-ups to a variety of hellish nightmares. In South Africa “the air is el dente” and her hotel room feels like a “royal carriage house” albeit within walking distance of Pollsmoor Prison, one of the most dangerous places on earth. At other times, she disrupts the flow of her thought-provoking narrative with observational platitudes. “Punishment” she writes “is backword looking. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is forward looking.”

Such idealism may make us feel good but the challenges necessary to bring about real change mean confronting messy, complex truths like our history with slavery, prejudice, economic inequality, and the hopelessness all that entails. More instructive is Dreisinger’s Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “Compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Society must find a way to guard the safety of its citizens within a justice system that guarantees respect and compassion for the victim while offering perpetrators a realistic path to redemption, not the inhuman treatment that shames all of us who imagine we live in a civilized society.

Dreisinger’s last stop, Norway, is the only true relief to what is, in the end, a very dark journey through deep pockets of abandoned humanity.  Norway boasts of its “penal exceptionalism,” where short sentences are the norm, prisons have flat screen televisions, all kinds of classes, wrap around sofas, well-educated correction officers, and very low rates of recidivism. Yet Norway’s inmates caution Dreisinger not to be fooled; despite their surroundings, they are prisoners all the same.

Incarceration Nations is an important book, one that pulls back the curtain on a global human tragedy that, for most of us, is hidden from view. The author’s unique ability to draw out the humanity in even the most troubled of souls reflects the passion and understanding she brings to her work. Her Prison-to-College Pipeline program, like her writing class in Uganda and drama workshop in Thailand, is a beacon of light that illuminates a steping stone on a path to change. One can only hope that if President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan stay true to their vows to begin the long-awaited criminal justice reform, activists like Baz Dreisinger will be invited to take a seat at the table.

Top photo: Colin Williams

Incarceration Nations
Baz Dreisinger

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.