How do you bring one of the most famous civil rights activists in history to life? According to Brandon J. Dirden, who plays Martin Luther King Jr. in the new Broadway show “All the Way,” it takes a bit of humanity and a bit of research. Dirden, who recently won Obie, AUDELCO and Theater World awards for his role in “The Piano Lesson,” joins award-winning actor Bryan Cranston and a talented cast in this show about the first year of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. Dirden spoke to the AmNews about his role as the iconic figure.
AmNews: What drew you to this role and this play?
Dirden: It’s not very often that you get to do a play on Broadway period, but a play that actually means something, not just to a specific group of people, but to America. I think the wonderful thing about this play is that it can only happen because of the circumstances of America, because of the promises that our founding fathers, [who were] comfortable with America’s greatest sin of slavery, and this is the point in America’s history that we finally decided in the 20th century where we’re going to answer to that, where we’re going to answer to the people that had been denied the principles that our forefathers set out to try and insure that everybody can have. And that’s solely American—no other country in this world could have the events of this play happen in their country. It’s specifically American, and that’s really what’s so attractive about it to me—the importance and the telling of our history.
Obviously, this is a big role, as a figure everyone knows in history—so how do you prepare for such a role? Everyone has this idea of Martin Luther King as a man, so what do you bring to that role?
You said something interesting, that people have this idea of Martin Luther King as a man, but in my experience, I think most people don’t really see him as a man the same way we see other men walking down the street. Most of us—rightfully so—revere him to the point where he’s almost above the men and women we see walking around today. His courage, his strength, his fortitude to fight for what’s right even though there’s a white man threatening him daily, to still continue, it’s almost godly. I think he’s been deified and iconicized to a great degree.
Looking at Dr. King through the lens of this play, what’s so attractive is that we start to see humanlike qualities. We see his struggles with incredibly tough decisions. We see a fractured home life. We see tension with different factions of the movement. Yet still, we see a man who is extremely courageous and is the Dr. King we know today—we see that in the play as well.
So I prepared for this in trying to see him as a real human who has very difficult decisions to make, and he sometimes didn’t make the right decisions but ultimately had the courage to always make the decisions he thought would benefit the most people and affect change. So it was about looking for that. How do we—without diminishing any of his legacy, without diminishing any of what he stood for—still present this figure as someone who’s very much like you and I, who had very human, real, flesh struggles? I think this play captures that beautifully without soiling his reputation.
What kind of research did you do into the history and the politics of that time?
One place I started was I took a look at the dates of 1963-1964. Fortunately, Dr. King wrote a book called “Why We Can’t Wait,” and it chronicles his involvement in Birmingham, AL., and going up against Bull Connor and that machine in Birmingham and trying to desegregate local establishments in Birmingham. … There’s also a book that Taylor Branch wrote, “Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years,” and it chronicles the civil rights era between 1963 and ʼ65. … I think being in this play, every cast member should walk out with college credit toward a U.S. history degree with the amount of information that we absorbed—and maybe even the audience should get some of that college credit.
Were you a fan of history before?
I was. My mother teaches history at Texus Southern University in Houston, Texas, where I’m from. She’s a big history buff, so there were always documentaries on, new books in the house. … It’s fascinating. It has always been a big part of my life.
You mentioned the type of activist, the type of person Martin Luther King was. Do you see any of what was happening in the play politically, socially, culturally—echoed in what we’re seeing today?
Certainly not to the level of Dr. King. One thing that made him so politically powerful was that he had an entire movement behind him. I don’t see that kind of cohesion today.
Would you say that’s one of the things that you hope people take away from this play?
Absolutely. Bryan Cranston, Michael McKean, everybody who signed onto this play—Bryan Cranston, at this point in his career, after “Breaking Bad,” he could’ve chosen any play he wanted to be in on Broadway, the producer would’ve jumped at the chance. He could’ve done his version of “Death of a Salesman” or “A Streetcar Named Desire” or whatever great play, but he chose a play that meant something to him, a brand-new play, a subject matter that was untested on Broadway. It’s unlike anything else. This is not a story about a mother and a son or a husband and wife. It’s not a family drama. This is a huge, sprawling, epic play, and I think when you sign onto a play like this, the hopes are that in some way, with the visibility of Broadway; the subject matter of this play will have an impact on each and every audience member and question, are they doing enough?
“All the Way” is now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. For more information or for tickets, call 877-250-2929 or visit allthewaybroadway.com.