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Singing his song: Marshall in Looking Over the President’s Shoulder.

What the Butler Saw
By James Yeara

Looking Over the President’s Shoulder

By James Still, based on My 21 Years in the White House by Alonzo Fields, directed by Regge Life

Capital Repertory Theatre, through March 26

Winston Churchill skinny dipped in Florida. He drank . . . often. He wrote his own speeches. He hated hearing people whistling. The King of England stuttered. Errol Flynn was a belligerent drunk who tried to swing a young woman from the chandelier. Herbert Hoover drank Orangeade, called his wife “mother,” and didn’t allow alcohol to be served. Generals Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall recommended against the integration of the armed forces under President Truman.

Marian Anderson was invited to sing at the White House when the Daughters of the American Revolution wouldn’t allow her to sing at their convention in Philadelphia, but she had to eat at the servants’ table in the Roosevelt White House. FDR’s favorite food was pig’s feet, and he could carve a turkey as economically as a “Vermont farmer.”

“Of all the great men” that White House Chief Butler Alonzo Fields (Larry Marshall) met in 21 years of service, “Harry Truman was the only one who gave me status.” “The White House belonged to the people, all the people,” Fields states. Being told that “for 2 cents I’d let you have one” for reprimanding Errol Flynn to get his chippy down from the chandelier, Fields responds, “I took a nickel out of my pants pocket, threw it down, stepped back and said, ‘Keep the change.’ ” Flynn never threw a punch. Eleanor Roosevelt’s nickname was “Alice in Wonderland,” Truman’s was “Billy Bunk, Full of Spunk,” FDR’s was “Charlie Potatoes, after a grocer back home in Indiana who can sell anyone anything,” and Mrs. Truman was Mrs. Truman, “because she wouldn’t put up with anything.” Hoover was called “Smiley” because he never did.

Hoover did say, “If the White House doesn’t lead, who’s going to follow?” which is as resonant today as it was 75 years ago.

There are 107 rooms in the White House, 19 bathrooms. In 1800, John and Abigail Adams were the first occupants. The first phone was installed in 1887: “1” was its number. Vacuums were first used in 1922, and the first refrigerator in 1926. “My wife says I talk even in my sleep, and it’s always about the White House,” Fields tells us.

Performed before designer S. Anthony Panfilli’s handsome set of ivory on white plaster walls with black marble floors, Looking Over the President’s Shoulder is two hours of subtle history spanning 1931 and the Hoover administration to after Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1953.

While the play is full of minutiae—and I longed for term limits, as three 30-minute scenes would have been plenty—the subtlety of the piece seeps into the soul. Marshall serves the character as well as Fields served his four presidents. The African-American Fields is consumed with the White House, indulging his passion for singing frequently (equally well-served by Marshall’s strong, clear singing voice) even to the point of ending act one with “White Christmas.”

Class and race consciousness weaves itself throughout Looking Over the President’s Shoulder: Showing that racism knows no racial boundaries, the kitchen staff revolts when a Latino chief chef is appointed by Fields. Truman receives press criticism for allowing Fields to fly home on a military plane to attend his mother’s funeral; Fields pointedly ends his White House service immediately after Eisenhower moves in. Looking Over the President’s Shoulder is a pleasant guest who overstays his welcome, but still leaves warm memories.

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