Though it’s not supposed to, writer-director James Still‘s play raises troubling questions about what we know, or think we know, about the past, even when we have records and research and witnesses to history. Take Alonzo Fields, for instance, an African-American who was on the White House’s domestic staff from the Hoover through the Eisenhower administrations, and was chief butler through 20 of the 22 years he spent in Washington.
Looking Over the President‘s Shoulder is Still’s loving homage to Fields, sifted from documents provided by, among other sources, the Indiana Historical Society, sundry presidential libraries, the White House, the Smithsonian Institute and the subject‘s widow, Mayland Fields. Being a one-man confessional (which actor John Henry Redwood has toured through the Midwest, to Virginia and Rochester, and is now performing at the Pasadena Playhouse), the play implicitly attaches both its insights and shortcomings to its subject, who neither spoke nor wrote anything that the playwright has attributed to him. In fact (as the play mentions), for reasons of expediency and protocol, Mr. Fields spent most of his career keeping his mouth shut.
“Alonzo Fields died in 1994, so I’ll never know what he might have thought about this play, about our production,” Still writes in a program note. These may be the most forthright words from Still‘s pen, for the author’s omissions from and distortions of the historical record are sure to gall those who believe that even in (or especially in) the arts, at least some of our chief executives‘ actions between 1931 and 1953 deserve a skeptical view.
Take, for starters, the single most horrific decision of the modern age, President Harry Truman’s authorizing the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan — thereby ushering in an era when, for the first time in recorded history, the end of the planet could be easily imagined. The world has never forgotten, though this little incident seems to have slipped by this historian playwright.
Alonzo Fields was chief butler to Mr. Truman at the time, privy to his meals and some of his staff meetings. The play has Fields praise the president for being the first chief executive to racially integrate the armed forces and to press for a civil rights policy — no petty observation. But not a word about the A-bomb. Are we to assume that when the nuclear age exploded over Nagasaki, Mr. Fields was taking the day off? All right, never mind the end of America‘s involvement in World War II; let’s try the beginning. Narrator Fields describes finding President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the morning of December 7, 1941, his head in his hands and shouting, “Where the hell was everybody?!”
From this depiction, one can infer that the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor took the president by surprise. The playwright wrote these words well after the publication of Robert B. Stinnett‘s book, Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor, which movie director Jerry Bruckheimer famously and fatuously tried to dismiss as “all bullshit” shortly before the premiere of his film Pearl Harbor.
Relying upon prodigiously researched documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, Stinnett (a World War II U.S. Navy veteran) builds a comprehensive case that FDR enacted an eight-point plan, proposed by Lieutenant Commander Arthur H. McCollum. The plan was designed to provoke a Japanese attack in order to justify America’s entry into a war that, at the time, an overwhelming majority of Americans wanted no part of.
According to the diary of War Secretary Henry Stimson, who had attended a White House conference on November 21, “The president said the Japanese were notorious for making an attack without warning, and stated that we might be attacked, say, next Monday, for example.”
Even if they served water at that White House conference, Alonzo Fields, as chief butler, would have been there — unless, of course, he was taking another day off. As playwright Still‘s proverbial fly on the wall, quietly buzzing in the background of history, Fields appears to have missed so much that I have difficulty trusting him.
Curiously, however, I do like him, thanks to Redwood’s stoic, Robeson-like dignity. At the play‘s start, Redwood luxuriates in the simple gesture of sitting on a park bench, determined to rule the stage by establishing his terms of pace and cadence, under Still’s finely textured staging.
“I know who I am,” Fields pronounces with a basso profundo authority that commands respect. This isn‘t an interpretation that invites mixed feelings, just admiration. His untempered nobility is part of an endeavor to create a legend disguised as a man.
All his life, Fields says, he wanted to be a singer — a dream deferred in perpetuity as he served his country instead. With Still’s words, Fields is no ironist. He tells simple anecdotes and says exactly what he means. When he‘s upset that opera diva Marian Anderson was banned from singing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she’s black, he says so. And when Anderson‘s concert at the Lincoln Memorial is a triumph, Fields bathes in her glory. He’s like the old servant Firs in The Cherry Orchard, upholding the rituals of the aristocracy, the fine art of setting a table, for instance. Few presidents ever deigned to visit the White House kitchen; the butler feels the rub, yet carries on uncomplaining. Fields has more of a social conscience than Firs and words more sage than would ever enter Firs‘ mind.
“Social change is as slow as the world is turning,” Fields imparts with Christ-like wisdom. It’s no coincidence that Russell Metheny‘s set features a massive copper ring perched atop a quartet of Romanesque pillars and marble slabs. In Act 1, the ring’s entire circumference contains a swath of dried sagebrush — a crown of thorns, so to speak.
Were the play to replace chunks of its romantic and biblical mythology with more candor and character, it might provide balm for those chaffed by our current administration‘s war drive. Still ignores FDR’s contortions to get America involved in an unpopular war — however just it turned out to be — choosing instead to have Redwood give a folksy caricature of Winston Churchill, with whom Roosevelt met at a Florida hideaway. All we learn from the meeting is that Churchill had a penchant for tumblers of sherry. How many visits to the Smithsonian did it take to come up with that one?
Our current administration‘s zeal for war and domestic control is not an aberration but part of a larger historical pattern. Much of the angst and terror shared by those attending recent anti-war protests comes from the illusion that we’re on uncharted waters, when we‘ve actually been down this swamp many times before. Senator Joseph McCarthy threw a can of paint all over the Bill of Rights in the name of national security and even called Truman a commie: no mention by playwright Still. Fields seems vaguely in touch with civil rights, but the Japanese internment camps never cross his lips.
For Still to grapple with (or even just mention) these officially sanctioned abuses may not only put context to the current sense of outrage, but it would also provide some comfort — cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless — that perhaps we’re driving in ellipses rather than off the edge of a cliff.
The whitewash effect of Looking Over the President‘s Shoulder is a bit like having 22 years of domestic and foreign policy explained by Colin Powell. The production’s creators are clearly spiritually invested in this project. The Kansas City Star reports that a suitcase Redwood uses in the show contains soil from Lyles Station, Indiana, from the church Fields attended as a child. Such devotion is very nice. A commitment to telling the whole truth would be nicer.
LOOKING OVER THE PRESIDENT‘S SHOULDER | Written and directed by JAMES STILL | Performed by JOHN HENRY REDWOOD | At the PASADENA PLAYHOUSE, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena | Through February 23