History Lesson 

TV and stage star Robert Guillaume directs Barry Scott in ANPT's probing one-man show about the White House's first black butler

TV and stage star Robert Guillaume directs Barry Scott in ANPT's probing one-man show about the White House's first black butler

Looking Over the President's Shoulder

Presented by The American Negro Playwright Theatre

Through Nov. 7 at TSU's Performing Arts Center

Barry Scott may be standing alone onstage throughout the American Negro Playwright Theatre's latest production, but there are collisions going on left and right. Past collides with present, African American aspirations collide with white power, and the repression of an earlier time in American history collides with the hope and progress of a more modern age. Fortunately, Scott, arguably our town's finest actor, has been guided through one of his most challenging roles ever by the venerable Robert Guillaume.

Guillaume, who turns 77 next month, has had a lengthy career as a singer and actor on Broadway and in movies and television. The winner of a Tony and two Emmy awards, he suffered a stroke in 1999, but has rebounded to continue his film and theatrical activities. Recently, he came to Nashville to complete directorial chores for James Still's Looking Over the President's Shoulder, an incredibly demanding one-man show that opened on Oct. 21.

Still's play captures the career of Alonzo Fields, who, for 21 years, was chief butler to presidents Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower—the first African American ever to hold the job. Fields' dreams of a legitimate singing career were forever put on hold in service of his sense of personal responsibility and in light of the era in which he lived, when opportunity did not come easily to a man of color.

This two-hour tour de force was first mounted in 2001 with the late John Henry Redwood, a Scott mentor, in the Fields role. Since then, it has been performed in major cities from coast to coast. Scott's a natural for the role. He's certainly no stranger to one-man shows, having performed his own Martin Luther King solo piece, Ain't Got Long to Stay Here, nationwide for nearly 20 years.

"It's a very difficult piece," Guillaume says. "When there are 10 actors onstage, you have more people to relate to, to interact with. I think that's easier for an actor in a sense. This is an enormous task for Barry, in the simple memorization alone."

Scott handles it like a pro. The Still script, based on extensive research, offers historical anecdotes about presidents, first ladies, international politicos and celebrities stretching from 1932 to 1953, all filtered through Fields' unique vantage point. Performing on Paul Gatrell's stoic, white-columned set, Scott relates White House tales—episodes involving Winston Churchill and Errol Flynn stand out—while keenly conveying Fields' intelligence, his sincere respect for his employers (Truman was his favorite), and his sense of loss over an artistic dream deferred. His passionate feelings about the uphill struggle for racial progress find especial resonance when he informs us that African American singer Marian Anderson was asked to the White House to perform for the king and queen of England, yet was not invited to share a meal with the dignitaries.

"We took our time the first few weeks investigating Alonzo Fields and the world he lived in," Scott says, "who he was as a human being, and as a Negro in 1930s America. We put a lot of effort into trying to flesh out what manner of man he was."

Scott delivers a noble performance, infused with humorous moments, though the script is certainly wordy. The narrative ebbs and flows, particularly in the first act, when some patience is required of the viewer. Yet the lag is in the writing, not in the acting, and Scott, ever aware of the need for persistent pacing, moves with momentum into Act 2, which has richer material and flows more engagingly.

"My first inclination," says Scott, "was that I would do this piece as a tribute to my friend John Henry Redwood. Sometimes you're naturally drawn to things, and to have Mr. Guillaume involved was a critical part of the process. In a way, he is an Alonzo Fields. He wanted to become a singer, and he played a butler on TV." Despite his serious performing skills and Broadway pedigree, Guillaume is probably best known to general audiences for his starring role in the late-'70s/early-'80s sitcom Benson, in which he played the worldly-wise butler to a governor.

"Barry wanted me to direct," continues Guillaume, "because there was an uncanny parallel with what I had come through, and I could bring an understanding of what black men of even Alonzo Fields' generation felt: how to be at least some semblance of what you want to be, and to make some money at it. Alonzo came along at a time when what you did was accede to what you perceived the general attitude to be—and you chose the more nonconfrontational side."

Unlike Fields, Guillaume became a show-biz star, with all its attendant benefits. But to be a black man playing a butler presented a big challenge, especially in a more progressive, racially aware era. Two words no African American wants to hear are "Uncle Tom."

"I wanted to portray a lawyer or a doctor," Guillaume says, "somebody that this society counted as important. With the Benson role, I felt the same trepidation anyone else would have—that Stepin Fetchit might have had in the 1930s. I said to myself, 'How am I going to do this part and stay out of those traps? I'll set us back 50 years.' But I looked at the character and I said, 'He cannot be stupid. He has to have dignity and humor.' "

As did Alonzo Fields. "Had he been white," Guillaume says, "he might've been a singer, which was where his heart was. But the exigencies of the times made his situation difficult. He would never walk away from what he clearly perceived as his family obligations. He wanted to be a hero at least to himself. He didn't want to be one of those people who said the hell with everybody but me and my dream."

Scott is wary that some people may initially recoil at the idea of watching a play about a black butler. But he's hoping that ANPT's distinguished reputation will overcome such apprehensions.

"It's an emotional journey to take on [the role of] this man," Scott says, "to understand his humor, his wit. How he protected people and would even scold them without being demeaning. He doesn't come off as a bitter black man, and he seems to be politically very savvy. I've struggled with his potential for bitterness—how he understands that he could have had a life as an artist. My challenge is to find out whether he has regret. I also think there will be people who see this show and say, 'This is my father, or uncle, or that was my brother.' "

Guillaume counts Looking Over the President's Shoulder as a success because it presents further exploration of what it means to be black in this country. "Fields believed fervently in the idea of democracy and the American dream," he observes. "He was a staunch supporter of the presidents, and he also exhibited a keen sense of who they were. His thumbnail sketches of the chief executives are trenchant, informative and entertaining. But the beautiful thing about this piece is that it provides another opportunity to peek into vast, undiscovered emotional territory."

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