In what’s surely the most anticipated theater debut of the season, “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” opens Friday at the Rep. The one-man show, starring one of Arkansas’s favorite sons, Lawrence Hamilton, and directed by Rep vet Gilbert McCauley (“Fences,” “The Piano Lesson,” both starring Hamilton), tells a story that’s especially appropriate in this new era, in which a black man occupies the White House. It’s the true story of Alonzo Fields, an educated African-American who had dreams of becoming a concert vocalist, but instead became a manservant in the White House for two decades and four presidencies, from 1931 to 1953.
It’s a story not just of the tension between aspiration (to sing) and expectation (to be virtually mute on the job), but also of a man who, McCauley says, “radiated a real grace” amidst the drama of the White House — the politics, the crises, the racism — and a man who had a surfeit of self-respect and found worth in his work.
The play, written by James Still, begins on Williams’ last day of work as he waits for a bus across the street from the White House. Williams kept a diary — it was the basis for a memoir, “My 21 Years in the White House” — and the play is framed around him flipping through it, recalling his experiences.
“He says in the memoir and in the play that he just ‘wanted to remember,’ ” says McCauley. [Lawrence and I] have talked about the importance of ‘memory’ in the African-American tradition because it’s an oral tradition, and we’ve talked about the word Toni Morrison used for it, ‘rememory,’ which is more of an act you’re fully engaging in. In the play, Williams is walking through his memories in a way.”
McCauley will use video footage and music of the era to help tell the story. And while it’s decidedly not a musical, Hamilton’s golden voice will still get some time to shine.
The play runs through Feb. 15, with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Single tickets prices range from $20 to $35. To purchase them in advance call the box office at 1-866-6THEREP or go to therep.org.