Chicago Theatre Review
A Wonderful, Albeit Incomplete, Experience
‘Looking Over the President’s Shoulder’ – American Blues Theater
There are two ways to review American Blues Theaters production of “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” the one-man show about Alonzo Fields – a black butler who worked in the White House under the Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower administrations – that inspired the popular film “The Butler.”
The first is to review the show on purely technical terms, and in all respects, American Blues efforts are top notch. Under the direction of Timothy Douglas, actor Manny Buckley (Black Theater Alliance Award winner) offers a superb performance, one that is perfectly modulated and fully brings Fields to life. An aspiring singer and musician, Fields began working in the White House during the early stages of the Depression to support his family, but ended up staying on the job for 21 years.
Throughout the show’s succinct 80 minutes, Fields tells the story of his life, and Buckley shines in all aspects. Whether he is relaying the grueling details of his job, telling humorous anecdotes about the Roosevelt family’s antics, or, in perhaps the plays most touching moment, recounting how special it was to sing for the White House staff and relive, for a moment, what his career as a musician could have been, Buckley is a wonderful, warm presence on stage, one that is a privilege to behold.
One-man shows, however, never succeed without the support of a talented technical staff, and American Blues crew maintained the company’s high standards. From Mike Durst’s subtle lighting, to Brian Sidney Bembridge’s phenomenal set (which mimics the kitchen next to a White House dining room), to Christopher J. Neville’s natural costuming, no detail was spared.
The second way to review this show, though, is on philosophical grounds, and it is in that respect that “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” may suffer for some audience members. To reiterate, the play concerns Alonzo Fields, a black man who served white presidents at a time when racial strife in America was at its bloodiest and most public. The South, which operated under a true caste system that disadvantaged African Americans at all levels of society, was completely segregated, with separate bathrooms, separate drinking fountains, separate ticket booths at theaters, even separate Bibles for witnesses to swear upon at courthouses. Lynchings, beatings, and indiscriminate murder were commonplace. And the great cities of the North (including our own Chicago) were horrendous in their own right, with segregated housing, cramped, rat-infested tenements, and racist housing policies at the federal and local that maintained the status quo and starved black neighborhoods of critical resources.
Not until the Civil Rights Movement of the late 50s and early 60s did government address those pronounced inequities, but playwright James Still is largely silent on those realities. Although Still does provide Fields with some observations on race – he remarks, for instance, that slaves built the White House and capitol buildings, and comments once or twice on the bigotry he overheard while servicing the presidents – the issue largely remains in the background to Field’s main anecdotes about being a butler and working around the demands and traits of the first families. The larger context of race in America never quite comes through, and I believe the play fails to rise to its full potential as a result of that.
Such a criticism may be unfair – it’s clear that Still does not intend to address such issues in the play. Rather, he aims to paint a full portrait of a remarkable, previously unknown figure in American history, and American Blues production brings that character alive in vibrant, loving fashion.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through March 6 by American Blues Theater at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL 60614
Tickets are available by calling 773-404-7336 or by visiting greenhousetheater.org.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.