By Marco Siler-Gonzales
Blood runs hot in an election year, when politicians seem to meld the American conscience with teetering moral decisions over fear or progress, right or wrong. Perhaps this is why City College theatre instructor John Wilk chose “All the Way” for the school’s upcoming production.
“The play is relevant for this election year. 1964 wasn’t that long ago and they still had Jim Crow laws back then. It was a fight for the right to vote,” Wilk said.
Written by Robert Schenkkan, “All the Way” depicts President Lyndon B. Johnson’s (LBJ) monumental passage of the Civil Rights Act and his landslide re-election victory in 1964. The play first premiered in 2012 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and will make its California debut at City College.
Schenkkan’s play begins right after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and chronicles LBJ’s first year in office.
“In that year, everything changes. I look at it as a hinge point in American politics,” the playwright said in an interview at the Oregon festival in 2011. “Virtually everything that we now associate with our contemporary political system happens that one year.”
Thursday night’s rehearsal on Feb. 18 showed that pulling this play together is no small feat. The three-hour rehearsal filled the Diego Rivera Theatre stage with complex dialogue and dynamic presentation.
“It’s very episodic, short scenes that we have to sew together like a tapestry. That’s just the nature of the beast. It just takes patience,” Wilk said.
The City College production of “All the Way” has a large cast of 27 students, many playing dual roles.
The production is part of Wilk’s play presentation and rehearsal class and is subject to all the normal woes of a City College classroom. The student playing Martin Luther King Jr. was out with a stomach flu and several other students were absent due to work.
“It’s fun but definitely a challenge. We have to deal with work and class schedules,” Wilk said, “but the willingness on part of the students is what pushes this play forward.”
The most captivating presence on the stage was LBJ himself, played by Catz Forsman. With a cranky Southern twang, Forsman portrays a deeply conflicted LBJ who is shouldering the sociopolitical pressures of a deeply-stratified American public and governance.
Forsman owns his lines like a seasoned professional, never failing to pick up immediately if a scene stumbles.
“It’s a big bulk of work, but I’ve been looking at the lines since September,” Forsman said.
A 2014 production of the play won two Tony Awards, outstanding play and best actor in a play to Bryan Cranston (from “Breaking Bad” and “Malcolm in the Middle”) for his portrayal of LBJ.
Throughout the controlled chaos of complex dialogue, scene changes and forgotten lines, Wilk wants his students to keep one thing in mind: the play depicts real people in history, and they deserve all the passion and sensitivity that these figures once expressed during a time of social turmoil in the United States.
“All the Way” will premiere at the Diego Rivera Theatre on Friday, March 4, 2016 at 7:30 p.m., with additional performances March 5–13 on Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. $10 for students or $15 general admission. Visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2495121 for tickets.
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