In a collaboration that’s just as winning as it’s been in the past, director Gilbert McCauley (“Fences,” “The Piano Lesson”) and actor Lawrence Hamilton have teamed to bring James Still’s one-man show to the Rep. The play follows Alonzo Fields, the White House’s first African-American chief butler, as he reminisces about his 21 years in the White House from a bus bench across the street after his last day on the job.
Hamilton, always eloquent and erect as vocalist, fills the role of Fields with an easy grace. In monologues, he’s reflective about his choices of paths taken and not. In anecdotes about presidents and first families and dignitaries, he’s a convincing mimic, though no matter how famous the character (Winston Churchill, Marian Anderson and Errol Flynn make appearances) it’s always Fields’ motivations and insights that we care about most. Throughout, the production achieves a conversational intimacy with the audience, as if Fields is talking directly to them.
Hamilton’s not completely alone onstage. Set designer Mike Nichols and production designer Matthew Webb support him with two picture-framed large video screens, which project images and video of people and places Fields recalls, which serves as a huge help to those who slept through Presidential History and, more importantly, livens up the spare stage.
Fields reminiscences proceed, as conversation is wont to do, in scattered, but mostly linear fashion. His biography is compelling stuff. Born at the turn of the century to a working family in an all-African-American community in southern Indiana, he distinguished himself early as a musician. In 1925, he moved to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory of Music (before he moved away, he was part of a group that awarded a scholarship to a young Marian Anderson). To pay for his tuition, he took and kept a job as a butler for Dr. Samuel Stratton, the president of M.I.T, until Stratton died suddenly several years later. While in the Stratton house, Fields had served Mrs. Herbert Hoover, who, upon hearing about Stratton’s death, invited Fields to join the White House staff. That meant leaving his music studies, but in the Depression and with a wife and a child, Fields accepted, thinking, he says in the play, he’d only be there a matter of months.
The tension of that expectation and dream of music lends the play a special poignancy, particularly when Fields recalls standing outside the East Room during the Roosevelt administration to catch Marian Robinson singing. It’s a personal story about thriving within what lives gives us, and, too, of course, it’s a fascinating window into the White House. Fields offers presidential tidbits, on Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, that even the most astute student of the presidency will appreciate or, at the least, be amused by.
I get that the Rep has to do the broad comedies and name musicals to stay afloat, but man, if seeing something like “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” doesn’t make you wish the theater could do eight more of these every season. It’s such a smart choice — a new (or at least new-ish) play that’s topical (fortuitously, since it was surely booked long before Obama’s ascension was inevitable) and starring one Arkansas’s favorite sons.
Go see it.