Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Both the play and the movie were written by British author Paul Webb. And, at the Edison Theatre, the story of the complex tactics and strategies that led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act generates admirable emotional uplift and ennobles us, intellectually, in fresh dynamic ways. Enoch King becomes legendary in the face of impossible odds, playing Martin Luther King Jr. And Brian Dykstra is outstanding as President Lyndon Johnson, a role he also filled in a different play, All the Way, at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2015, about the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
In their hands, and with the playwright's artful sense of behind-the-scenes realpolitik, the show climbs and climbs. The compatriots of Dr. King and the inner circle of President Johnson and their adversaries, too, give both men great status and grievous worries, which they face down or dismiss with equal measures of bravery. Under the direction of Mr. Himes, actors King and Dykstra each stand on their own Mount Olympus, trying to harmonize together in the least suicidal ways possible.
MLK and LBJ grapple with the rage of white supremacy in the American South and with the wily power-players both there and in Washington D.C., in this production that runs about two hours and thirty-five minutes (including a 15-minute intermission). The story leads us to a strange confrontation with unexpected implications at the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a critical civil rights march to Montgomery, Alabama. The confrontation is not what you think it is, and then it's not what you think it should be, and then it's not at all what you ever thought it could be. The sheer gamesmanship of it dwarfs a theatre critic.
Evann De-Bose is regal and long-suffering as King's wife Coretta, gambling on saving her marriage with a brash soliloquy on sacrifice and monogamy. Fiery Eric Dean White helps spin the show's flywheel of social justice as the play's twin "white devil" characters: Alabama Governor George Wallace and Dallas County (AL) sheriff Jim Clark. And if Mr. White weren't so engagingly wicked and calculating and fearsome as he is here, perhaps this King and Johnson wouldn't seem so astonishing either.
Gregg Carr Sr. is delightful as Ralph Abernathy, in support of Dr. King; and Tamara Thomas makes the civil rights struggle real as Annie Lee Cooper, a nursing home worker who tries to register to vote, and later achieves notoriety in a confrontation with Sheriff Clark. In the voter registration scene, she is remorselessly skewered onstage by the registrar played by Isaiah Di Lorenzo, an actor who also deftly portrays Richard Goodwin, an idealistic presidential aide swept up in great events. The show features first rate lighting and costumes by Sean Savoie and Marc W. Vital II, respectively.
The stage is dominated by a large center section devoted to the furnishings of the Oval Office, as the occasional fulcrum of events, by the esteemed set designer Dunsi Dai. A parade of atmospheric visual projections is rendered by Zach Cohn. But, after achieving unexpected heights of drama, the play stalls near the very end, for a long minute or so. The bewildering interregnum focuses our attention on a couple of large, arid, historical march projections. This static interlude has the effect of packing everything back into a dusty old history book. But then the action picks up again with a rousing musical solo by Ms. De-Bose, as Coretta Scott King, leading everyone into a brisk curtain call. Until I checked with the production company, I wondered if that dead spot was the result of a missed cue.
Even with the "willing suspension of disbelief," modern drama is still the most honest of all the art forms. And this play earnestly beseeches us to affirm our belief in the fiction of these actors, playing far greater people from recent memory, as realistically as they dare. But disbelief can only be suspended to the extent that naturalistic human behaviors are in full play. And that challenge here, for believable heroes and actors who dare, is snatched up in a brash instant. As a result it all becomes so real.
In the end, the ferocity and ingenuity and sheer believability of the civil rights icons in Hold On!, as well as their antagonists, as played by this cast, make a kind of fiction of the audience instead–revealing us to be the passive (and even callow) recipients of a sacrifice of nearly sixty years ago. And on this rare occasion, it seems Dr. King has suspended his disbelief in us.
Hold On! runs through January 28, 2024, at the Edison Theatre, on the campus of Washington University, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information please visit www.theblackrep.org
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association
** Denotes Member, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, Inc.