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.
"When Hoover has been taping King, because of the NSA scandals, audience members could absolutely draw parallels," he said. "LBJ's aggression in Vietnam parallels Bush going into Iraq. I think it's scary. I talk to young people after the show and we talk about taking social responsibility and the importance of actively participating in local elections.
"The American promise means having a political voice, and it was so crucial to fight for the civil rights legislation," Dirden said. "People got dressed up to vote because it was an honor and a ritual. I see people at the stage door brimming with hope, and when I engage in conversation they want to talk about their personal connection to civil rights."
Though the texture of the drama is mostly somber, there is ample humor, thanks mostly to LBJ's much-documented course ways. "Humor is such a vital part of the play," Dirden said. "The entire historical period is celebrated by the writer," Robert Schenkkan.
"It's a real human story with a tragic figure at the center," he said. "Cranston wisely explores the depths of his power and ruthlessness and his humor makes him more human."
Dirden is certain that the play will resonate with multiple generations. "The play is structured like HOUSE OF CARDS, the Netflix series that is so good. The fact that so many people watch it tells me that Americans are hungry for the personal stories behind the legislative process," he said. "I think this is going to have mass appeal. For those interested in the nostalgic history, it will strike a special chord, and those who haven't lived through it will get it, too.
"This play challenges you to demand that your elected officials push for you," he said.
Playing Dr. King is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he said. "I think that there are some roles that come into your life where you are very aware that it wouldn't have happened if not for every single moment of your life that went before it."
He doesn't expect many roles to compare. "How am I going to top this one?" he laughed.
All The Way is playing at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.