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RFK: Journey to Justice at LA Theatre Works

March 17, 2010

Listen to this story at KPCC.

After the death of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, his brother and attorney general Robert found himself at odds with civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King. A new play, commissioned by LA Theatre Works and universities, including Stanford, examines Bobby Kennedy’s transformation from antagonist to civil rights powerhouse. 

Actor Henry Clarke says the play focuses on a very passionate man and real fighter who aligned himself with a powerful cause. “Bobby was never as happy as when he was fighting for something. And his role in the Kennedy family was often to fight for his brother and to fight for his family’s agenda.” 

Clarke said the story relies on letters, memos, and verbatim conversations to review the way Bobby Kennedy’s thinking changed during the social upheavals of the mid-1960s. “And it’s a fascinating look at the Civil Rights movement because it’s really through the eyes of a man who is dragged, kicking and screaming, into the fight.” 

Through that fight, Clarke said, Kennedy realized what he was fighting for – as if he’d entered a war without fully understanding who the enemy was. 

There is a challenge to portraying an historical figure, particularly one whose voice was distinct and memorable. “I approached the role of Bobby Kennedy first, historically, because I’m kind of a dork. I realized he didn’t have the most melodious voice (Jack had the voice in the family) – and so I realized that imitation wasn’t going to serve the play.” 

You can hear the difference between Clarke’s two takes on RFK’s voice: the first, a very accurate impersonation; the other, similar, but lower pitched. “This is a time of shame and sorrow, this menace of violence in America stains our land and every one of our lives. My voice is a little bit lower than his, it’s not quite as nasal. But in that place I feel I can represent his sound and his inflection and his rhythm…” and let the audience fill in the rest.

Clark’s comments about inflection and rhythm brought to mind musical theatre – which this is not, at least not technically. But director John Rubinstein, who hails from a classical music family, uses music as a metaphor when he tries to explain how he’d cut a burdensome scene. 

“Musically, we’re going on too long, we have to shift the tempo. We have to bring in the accompaniment here. So we make cuts sometimes just for the rhythm of the piece, for the flow of the melody, as opposed to just purely for the information being imparted.” 

Rubinstein needed to impose cuts this week when the national touring company traveled to Los Angeles to record a performance for LA Theatre Works. He had to shave 10 minutes from the play so it could fit inside a two-hour window. Rubinstein took advantage of skills he may have inherited from his maternal grandfather who founded the Warsaw Opera and his father Arthur, an iconic pianist. In running for president in 1968, Bobby Kennedy took advantage of the confidence he felt in his own voice, Rubinstein says, to do some good for the country.

“And just as that voice of Robert Kennedy was beginning to be heard, that was when he himself was assassinated, so that was all cut off. So this play really focuses on his conversion, his transition from henchman of JFK to the voice of civil and human rights in this country.”

John Rubinstein recently returned from New York where he directed the off-Broadway premiere of another LA Theatre Works production, “Top Secret.” It examines the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

RFK: The Journey to Justice opens Wednesday, March 17, for five performances, at the Skirball Center.

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