Remembering Robert Kennedy
Radio play traces RFK's changing relationship with civil-rights movement
It's June 1968, and graduate student Susan Albert Loewenberg is finishing a paper on Robert Kennedy. As she writes her last paragraph, she's tired but thrilled: On the television, Kennedy is celebrating his victory in the California presidential primary.
Then, to her horror, chaos breaks out on the screen. Kennedy has been shot.
Loewenberg feels as though she has come to know Kennedy through working on her paper. For a long time after the assassination, she is devastated and haunted.
Forty-two years later, Loewenberg is still fascinated by the myth and the man. She's the producing director of L.A. Theatre Works, a radio theater company that tours and records the plays for broadcast. On Jan. 27, the company comes to Stanford University with "RFK: The Journey to Justice," a docudrama co-commissioned by Stanford Lively Arts and written by Murray Horwitz and Jonathan Estrin.
A work on Robert Kennedy could take many paths. This one focuses on Kennedy's work in civil rights and his changing — and checkered — relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the movement.
Civil rights seemed a timely subject with the election of Barack Obama, Loewenberg said in an interview. "I just think that so many young people don't know about that time of history, and Robert Kennedy's part in that effort," she added.
The play doesn't depict RFK as an eternal activist. In the opening scene, John and Robert Kennedy are mired in politics, working to ensure JFK's presidential nomination in the 1960 race. They're angry that Jackie Robinson has endorsed Richard Nixon, and concerned about winning the black vote.
"It sets the tone that, for the Kennedy brothers, civil rights is something that can be managed. They just weren't that familiar with the issue," Loewenberg said.
Later, after John Kennedy is elected, black leaders criticize the administration for not doing enough for their community. A big creative inspiration for "RFK" was a 1963 meeting between then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and black leaders including writer James Baldwin, playwright Lorraine Hansberry and singer Harry Belafonte.
Dramaturg Elizabeth Bennett wrote in the play's program notes: "Kennedy ... expressed privately his shock that his brother's administration wasn't lauded by blacks for its efforts, who told him that if this is the best he could do, then the best was not enough."
Over time, though, Kennedy becomes increasingly moved by the racial injustices he sees in the country. Although he never meant to be a civil-rights hero, "RFK's strides towards achieving equality began with legislative measures, eventually expanding his concerns beyond black-white issues to fundamental issues such as workers' rights and poverty," Bennett wrote.
The changes in Kennedy make him a compelling character, Loewenberg said. "He had a very specific way of looking at the world. But a number of things happened that really changed his world view. He allowed himself to grow enormously as a result of his encounter with new information."
Crafting the play required sifting through heaps of period material, including speeches, letters, newspapers and Senate transcripts. The authors also brought varied experience to the table. Estrin has directed theater and written and produced films and television. Horwitz's resume includes originating the NPR quiz show "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" and penning lyrics for the Metropolitan Opera's production of "The Great Gatsby."
The radio play does not have sets, but features costumes and lighting as well as a wealth of sound. Sound-effects artist Nick Caruso will be on stage with a table of equipment to play recorded speeches, typewriter noises and other sounds. He also creates effects the old-fashioned way, rustling paper or even drinking a glass of water if a character is imbibing.
Actor Henry Clarke plays Robert Kennedy, with Kevin Daniels as Martin Luther King Jr. Philip Casnoff portrays John Kennedy. It can be difficult to cast such iconic characters, but Loewenberg noted that choosing the ensemble in the nine-member cast was also challenging, "finding actors who could do a variety of accents and age ranges." Lynn Wactor, for instance, plays all the female roles, including Coretta Scott King, Dolores Huerta and Myrlie Evers.
"RFK" comes to Stanford on a tour that includes stops at other universities. Then in March it's back to L.A. Theatre Works' recording studio, where the play will be recorded for the company's radio show.
The "RFK" tour also includes educational components, such as student matinees and free talks. Loewenberg said she hopes audiences of all ages learn lessons from the show, not only about leadership and the courage to change one's mind, but also about the difficulties activists faced.
More personally, she hopes people find Robert Kennedy inspiring for overcoming personal loss.
"JFK was everything to Robert. His whole life had been dedicated to serving his brother," she said. "When that rug is pulled out from under you, it's how you manage to pick yourself up and go on," she said.
What: "RFK: The Journey to Justice," a radio docudrama by L.A. Theatre Works
Where: Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27
Cost: $34/$38 general, $10 for Stanford students, with other discounts for groups, young people and other students
Info: Go to livelyarts.stanford.edu or call 650-725-ARTS. The Aurora Forum will also host a free talk with Susan Albert Loewenberg and cast members at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26 in Stanford's Pigott Theatre.