Looking Over the President’s Shoulder is a one-person play. Why? It was my instinct from the beginning to write this play for one actor. There is something intimate and exhilarating and shared about watching one character tell his or her story. As an audience, we feel close to that character, we feel as though we’ve been cast as his confidant, we feel essential to the experience. We’re here to hear a story. And on a technical level, there is something dangerous and thrilling about watching one actor bravely inhabit the stage for two hours. But secretly, there was more to it than that.
As the Chief Butler in the White House, Alonzo Fields was required to be silent, to stare straight ahead, not to smile or acknowledge any of the conversations taking place. As an African American in the White House from 1931 to 1953, he stood behind four presidents as the country struggled with its complicated history of racism and classism. I remember feeling there was something perfectly subversive and bold about a one-man play whose character hadn’t been allowed to talk on the job. Finally, Alonzo Fields would get to tell his story. Through the years I’ve also discovered there were many audiences who want to hear his story.
It is fitting that I’m sharing my 20th season as playwright-in-residence with Alonzo Fields. It’s one of the first plays of mine the IRT commissioned. If you’re like me, you might never have heard of Alonzo Fields. I first ran across his name in 1999 while doing research on another project for the IRT. Soon I was making phone calls to the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, to the White House, and to the Smithsonian. I would travel to Boston and spend time with Alonzo Fields’s second wife, Mayland (whom I recently visited on the occasion of her 100th birthday!). I would travel to Washington DC and talk to White House staff, spend time in the White House kitchen and the butler’s pantry, and walk up and down the back stairs. I would also walk across Pennsylvania Avenue, sit on a park bench, and look back at the White House—just as Alonzo Fields does in the play. Many years and many productions later, and I’m reminded anew what a wonderful man Fields was, what a complicated moment in history he shares with us, and what a unique role he played. He really was “in the front row watching the passing parade of history...”
Alonzo Fields died in 1994, so I’ll never know what he might have thought about this play and all the attention he’s gotten through the many actors who have played him on many stages through the years. If he were here, there are things I’d love to ask him. But mostly I’d want to say thank you. Thank you for teaching me about living a life with grace and elegance, about doing a job with a sense of purpose and pride, and about being an artist who served dinner to four presidents and their families— and served his country too.
I dedicate this production to the memory of John Henry Redwood who originated the role. And to David Alan Anderson who so beautifully accepted the baton from “Pops” and brings Alonzo Fields to life yet again.
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