In All the Way, Robert Schenkkan's sprawling, three-hour political drama about the first year of Lyndon Johnson's presidency, Brandon J. Dirden has a daunting task. The OBIE and Theater World Award-winning veteran of The Piano Lesson and The First Breeze of Summer (among many others) takes on the role of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights leader who, in the year the play is set, was struggling to work with the new president to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
For Dirden, who first played the role in last fall's production at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it's the opportunity to strut his stuff in his first leading role on Broadway — and hold his own against heavy hitters like Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston (as Lyndon Baines Johnson), Michael McKean (as J. Edgar Hoover), and a cast of 17 additional stage veterans. Directed by Bill Rauch, the drama begins performances February 10 at the Neil Simon Theatre.
Before the start of rehearsals, TheaterMania chatted with Dirden about the challenges of portraying Dr. King, the satisfaction of sparring with Cranston onstage, and the benefits of watching a three-hour drama in an age of 70-minute plays.
Is it intimidating to play Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?
How could it not be? Seriously. His passing was not even fifty years ago. He's still fresh in people's minds [and in that time], he's been deified. So how can you not be [intimidated], not only taking on a historical figure, but people who were alive and come to see this show will remember him. I think what Robert Schenkkan has done is captured a side of him that nobody's ever seen before — as a politician. That's not the first adjective that comes to people's minds when they think of Dr. King. Orator? Sure. Preacher? Yes. Civil Rights Activist? Yes. But nobody ever put politician on that list. In this play, we see how he had to straddle both sides — not republican and democrat, but politics and everyday folk.
How do you approach your portrayal? Do you view it as a character or as the real person?
It is a character. Although these are all people — everybody in this play existed —it's a dramatization. If we try to nitpick about the specifics of what actually happened, we [would] get bogged. The playwright has taken certain liberties with the timeline and actual conversations. In the end, it's theater. I don't think people should walk in here thinking this is a documentary. If I start thinking about being one-hundred percent accurate, [I] can't do the play. What I attempted to do, what we all attempted to do, was pin down the essence of the [people] we're playing.
Did you do research to prepare? Are you a researcher?
I have to be for this one. In order to meet the expectations, you have to know your stuff. I tried to look at the year this takes place and look at King just before and during. Luckily for us, Dr. King wrote a book called Why We Can't Wait. It's basically his reflection of 1963, the summer when they were making strides in Alabama and trying to do what he had done in Montgomery. His letters from a Birmingham jail are published in that book. That was a helpful resource to find out where Dr. King's head was at the time.
The King Center in Atlanta has done a wonderful thing: They have digitized all the documents that have anything to do with him [into] a searchable database. And it's free. What I did was type in the months and dates and pulled up documents that were either written by him or about him. I got the Southern Christian Leadership Conference budget, so we can see the deficit they were operating in. This play shows how desperate they were for financing, and how he had to be out on the road. When I saw the actual budget, the deficit they were in made it clear for me the pressure he was under.
In Boston, your wife, Crystal A. Dickinson, played Coretta Scott King, but she's not continuing with the project.
She has a more important job. We're expecting.
Thank you. April 1 is the due date, so she's otherwise engaged. [laughs]
You've got Roslyn Ruff coming in to play that part now. You've worked with her quite a bit, most notably in The Piano Lesson off-Broadway at Signature Theatre.
I love working with her. It will be really interesting going from the feuding brother and sister in Piano Lesson to husband and wife [in All the Way]. She's cool as a cucumber. She's so dynamite. She's no-nonsense when it comes to the work.
What is it like to work with Bryan Cranston as LBJ?
I give Bryan Cranston a lot of credit. Here's a man who's at the top of his game right now, who is committing a substantial amount of time to a piece untested on Broadway. What's even more impressive, beyond him doing that, is that when he was in Boston, he was in Boston. You never ever got a sense that he wanted to be anywhere else. You look in this man's eyes and you see someone who is one-hundred-percent present and doing the thing every night. That's why I'm excited to get back in the rehearsal room: to take everything I learned in Boston, with a partner who's gonna push it even further.
A three-hour historical drama isn't something you see on Broadway these days. Do you think the length will scare audiences?'
We hit a point, I think, in American theater, where we got seventy-minute plays, eighty-minute plays, where you get in and you get out. We started selling this idea of compact theater. But I think there's some course correction going on now. When people come to the theater, I assume they want to be there. This play is an event from start to finish. It's a nail-biter. So what Robert Schenkkan does is celebrate the event. I think people are going to be really, really shocked that this play is in this location on Broadway. It's a welcome addition to what's going on [and] I don't know anything that's remotely like it.