By John Lyle Belden
An exceptional treat for theatre fans and history buffs, the James Still masterpiece, “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” has returned to the Indiana Repertory Theatre through May 6.
Aspiring opera singer – and proud native of Lyles Station, Indiana – Alonzo Fields took one of the few jobs available to a black man in Boston in the 1920s: a household servant. Then a chance encounter with First Lady Lou Henry Hoover leads to a position at the White House, where he ascends to Chief Butler. As he says in the play, Fields planned to only work through the winter before returning from Washington to Boston and his music – “That ‘winter’ lasted 21 years.”
David Alan Anderson transforms fully into Fields, recounting his career to us as he waits for the bus after his last day at the White House. Through him – and Still’s researched work, based in part on Fields’ memoir – we gain an insight into the lives and personalities of four presidents and their wives, as well as visiting British prime minister Winston Churchill.
The political scene is largely beside the point, though the racist policies of of the era can’t be ignored. Fields remembers encountering segregated facilities, and reflects on President Harry Truman’s orders to integrate the military. Serving through the end of Herbert Hoover’s term and 12 years of Franklin D. Roosevelt gave him a unique perspective on the White House during the Great Depression, as well as World War II.
The most striking thing about the narrative is the focus on the presidents and their families, their humanity and the way they conducted themselves in public and private. In this context, the Executive Mansion becomes a fully fleshed-out character as well. Adding to the context of history we may already know, we gain a deeper understanding of the Hoovers, the Roosevelts, the Trumans, and the Eisenhowers. And, in turn, we get the measure of this man before us, our unassuming hero, as well as the hard-working staff who invisibly keep the White House running smoothly, allowing our leaders to do their jobs as best they can.
The IRT is at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, next to Circle Centre. For information and tickets, call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.