Murphys Creek Theatre is closing its current season with the one-man play “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder.” Written by James Still, the play is a reflection on the real life story of Alonzo Fields, who was chief butler in the White House for more than 20 years.
Fields was born in 1900 and grew up in the all African-American town of Lyles Station, Indiana. He studied music at the New England Conservatory of Music and planned to become an opera singer before the Great Depression thwarted his goal.
Fields initially didn’t want the job of White House butler, but he had a family to support and needed something to tide him over until he found work as a singer. However, he was so good at his job, he was soon promoted to chief butler and became indispensable to four consecutive administrations.
Fields kept a journal during his years in the White House, and later wrote a book, “My 21 Years in the White House,” which was published in 1960. It is his vivid and humorous observations of the interactions he witnessed that makes the play so lively. The play takes place in a formal, chandeliered east wing dining room, meticulously designed by Terry Smith.
Dwight Dean Mahabir has played this part several times before, and has honed the role to perfection. His connection with the audience is immediate, and he flawlessly brings Field’s persona to life. Through his character’s recollections, the audience gets a glimpse of the different personalities who inhabited the White House, from the straight-laced Hoovers, the complex Roosevelts and the down-to-earth Trumans. He also captures the transitions between these very different administrations.
Mahabir excels at weaving a story and relates some delightful anecdotes about the public figures Fields encountered during his tenure. First Lady Lou Hoover, who had earlier met Fields at a luncheon, offered him the job at which he would excel. Mrs. Hoover presided over White House entertaining with much attention to detail, while her husband did not accept a salary as president.
It is the Roosevelt family who are portrayed most memorably, perhaps because their 12-year stay at the White House was the longest. Mahabir captivates the audience with his impressions of Eleanor Roosevelt flitting about planning activities with energy and enthusiasm.
He also tells about how dinners with several dignitaries might be scheduled at a moment’s notice, leaving the staff to hastily prepare a fitting feast. Through all of this, Alonzo Fields presided with grace and aplomb.
Other highlights of the play include Fields’ encounters with Winston Churchill, who was responsible for some very colorful episodes, often while in an inebriated state. And, Fields also had some brushes with celebrity visitors, such as Errol Flynn, who challenged him to a fist fight, and actress Marie Dressler, who told him he was handsome enough to be in Hollywood.
There are also tragic moments depicting FDR’s devastation at the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the shock at his death in 1945, which stunned Fields as well as the country. Particularly moving is the account of Field’s admiration of Harry Truman, who learned the names of all his staff members and treated them as individuals. Fields left the White House in 1953 at the start of the Eisenhower administration.
One of Field’s most treasured memories was the opportunity he was given to sing for the White House staff at Christmas in 1932, while the president and first lady were away. This anecdote provides one of several occasions for Mahabir to treat the audience to dazzling song segments delivered in a rich baritone voice.
Director Richard Mann and Assistant Director Kathy Lindsey’s use of music and an onstage screen to broadcast actual historical events is quite effective. The lighting by Terry Smith adds depth to the production. This engaging play, superbly acted and directed, is wonderful entertainment for the entire family. Even history buffs will likely learn something they did not know.
“Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” runs through Sunday at the Black Bart Playhouse, 580 S. Algiers St. in Murphys. For tickets or more information, visit murphyscreektheatre.org or call (209) 728-8422.