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|A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Looking Over the President's Shoulder
by Laura Hitchcock
"When I talk in my sleep, my wife says it's always about The White House", says Alonzo Fields, the first African-American to serve as chief butler to four Presidents. In Looking Over The President's Shoulder James Still has constructed an account of those years.
Although the historical anecdotes and glimpses of backstairs politics are amusing and shrewdly perceptive, the play's real glory is its picture of Fields, richly portrayed by John Henry Redwood. Tall, distinguished, with a deep voice and a rolling laugh, Redwood bears a remarkable resemblance to Fields and, in the few bars of music which he sings, validates Fields' early ambition to be an opera singer. Once a student at the Boston Conservatory of Music, he had to give up singing to support his wife and baby. First Lady Lou Hoover, who remembered his work as a butler to the President of MIT, offered him a job at The White House. He planned to stay one year and stayed for 21.
Fields' sorrow over his lost career is a leit-motif throughout the play, particularly poignant when he sings in The East Room, but only for the servants' party. He's proud to hear his former classmate Marian Anderson sing for the President but notes that she is not invited to dinner. Mrs. Roosevelt, however, resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution when they refused to let Anderson sing in Constitution Hall because of her race and staged an enormous outdoor concert by her at The Lincoln Memorial.
The staff gives nicknames to each presidential family. Mrs. Roosevelt's is Alice in Wonderland because she doesn't seem to dwell in the real world they know although in this case she chose to ignore it.
Still's extensive research and Redwood's versatility produce moments with acerbic Winston Churchill, girlish Margaret Truman, and FDR, raging on December 7th. Fields talks about the tension when administrations change and the staff has to get used to serving a new family. Will they like us? they wonder, like orphans facing adoption. His favorite president was down-to-earth Harry Truman who appreciated him as a man. Fields glimpses the presidents in historic moments and notes with sadness that at Hyde Park colored staff were required to eat in the kitchen.
In the more absorbing second act the story moves into the seismic shifts brought on by the Roosevelt administration and the War Years when United States troops were integrated for the first time. When Fields retires after 21 years, Still creates a visual montage of his life. As "Ave Maria", from his first life as a young singer, plays in the background, Fields sings a few notes. A circular ring set as a grand banquet table descends from the ceiling which Fields, ever the chief butler, scrupulously adjusts. Then the train whistle blows and, responding as he did to all the forced events of his life, he runs off stage to take his place.
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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