The Butler Did It
Really rich people don’t understand that the domestic help always has more interesting stories than the employer. Watching Robert Altman’s recent Gosford Park, you’d rather knock back with Emily Watson’s maid than with Kristen Scott Thomas’ dilettante because she would rather air dirty laundry than clean it.
What makes the character of Alonzo Fields so compelling in American Heartland Theatre’s Looking Over the President’s Shoulder is the history he witnessed as chief butler and maitre d’hôtel at the White House through some or all of four administrations. A black man at a time when the back door was the only portal, he made life a little easier for the Hoovers, the Roosevelts, the Trumans and, for a short while, the Eisenhowers. He was the tuxedo-wearing fly on the wall while the world was changing outside the White House gate.
Written and performed by two University of Kansas alumni, James Still and John Henry Redwood, the show is centered on the dining room, where presidents and first ladies try to conduct normal lives. Fields put his opera-singing career on hold for what he thought would be a short stint in Washington but ended up working there for two decades. Serving prime ministers and movie stars, he was astute enough to write down everything and save the memorabilia, such as menu cards at the June 1942 luncheon for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
As Fields, Redwood uses every bit of the stage and several vocal impressions to put viewers inside the White House’s innermost chambers. “The more things changed, the more they stayed the same,” he observes, recalling the hustle and bustle surrounding each change of command. The quirks and appetites of the residents and guests were under his watch; if Winston Churchill wanted a snifter of sherry at breakfast, Fields had it there before anyone asked. He fondly remembers everything from Mrs. Roosevelt’s boisterous teas to the warmth with which Harry Truman made him feel visible.
There was so much in Alonzo Fields’ papers that Still’s script can’t help but feel stuffed. He directs the show not so much as one long monologue — which it basically is — but as a peek inside a historic snow globe, with occasional abrupt transitions and threads sometimes left hanging. Nor does Still quite know how to end the proceedings. As it is, Fields becomes uncharacteristically melodramatic, and it’s a startling turn from the genuineness of his earlier storytelling style. Redwood has shown he can fill the stage without the sudden outburst.
Nonetheless, Michael Keck’s captivating sound design incorporates news clips and arias that animate Fields’ life before and after the job, and Darren W. McCroom’s lighting stays right in step with his subject. Proving less is more, Russell Metheny’s set design uses a centrally located bench for Fields’ moments of reflection as well as three straight-backed chairs and a vintage wheelchair to represent the four leaders he served. At the show’s conclusion, the outer rim of a round table, set for a state dinner, floats down from the ceiling. It’s a beautiful theatrical moment showing the tangible result of Fields’ diligence.