BWW Interview: ALL THE WAY'S Brandon J. Dirden Takes MLK the Distance
A native of Texas and the son of a history teacher, Brandon J. Dirden thought he knew all about Lyndon Baines Johnson. Then he was cast as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., opposite Bryan Cranston as LBJ, in All the Way, which re-enacts the groundbreaking events of Johnson's first year in office.
Though President Johnson became synonymous with the quagmire of Vietnam, his early days were consumed by the struggle for civil rights, culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. "I didn't hold him in high esteem before I learned about what he achieved and fought for regarding civil rights," said Dirden, who grew up in Houston.
"I thought I knew a lot about this time period," said Dirden. "My mother was a history teacher and I went to Morehouse College," the historically black college in Atlanta. "I thought I knew a lot about MLK Jr., but what the playwright has unearthed and made real, I didn't know the half of it."
In playing Dr. King, Dirden is merely stepping into the shoes of the most towering figure in the American civil rights movement. "Like anyone else, he put his pants on one leg at a time," he said. "And despite the threats on his life, he kept going. I see an imperfect person who chose to do very heroic things."
"I play this role with a lot of faith that the words are indicative of what he was fighting for," Dirden said. Much of the script for All the Way has been taken from historical transcripts.
"This character is a champion and courageous when it comes to what he endured," Dirden said. Playing Dr. King has inspired Dirden to apply his qualities to his own everyday life. "Even from a civic standpoint, it matters what you do," he said. "When I'm on the subway, am I encouraging a young man to give up a seat for a pregnant woman? Does it matter if I pick up some garbage I see or do I walk over it?"
Portraying Dr. King has been one of his most difficult roles, Dirden said. "When you take on a role like this, you work through many stages including intimidation and excitement. I read several books about him, and that's where the intimidation came in," he said. "He's a lot smarter than I knew, combined with charisma and courage. I really believe if a character you're acting doesn't intimidate you in some way, you shouldn't do the part.
"A much better match is made when you learn just as much about yourself than the character. It's not worth your time or the audience's if a role doesn't challenge you. That's true for any character," he said. "You don't have to play a monumental character-you can be a spear carrier in a Shakespeare play. Through the rehearsal process you get to the point where you see what you're doing is working, not to have arrogance but to reach the point where we have a handle on the story so that people will come to the show and spend three hours."
As part of his own research, Dirden viewed an assortment of civil rights-era documents through the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. "The King Center has digitized a lot of the papers he wrote, and the periodicals are available through a free searchable database," he said. "I pulled up information from November 1963 through 1964 and found documents in the exact time frame of the play."
Dirden, whose credits include CLYBOURNE PARK and August Wilson's THE PIANO LESSON, said that being in All the Way, whose characters include such historical figures as Hubert Humphrey (Robert Petkoff), J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean), Stokely Carmichael (William Jackson Harper) and George Wallace (Rob Campbell), was "like playing on an all-star team."
"King was the face of the movement but everyone else was a piece of the puzzle," Dirden said.
"It was a different period in time," Dirden said. "But every performance, when we get to certain parts of the play, it feels up-to-date.