Fifty years on, after circumnavigating the marble columns of the Lincoln Memorial, diffusing the sticky humidity of Montgomery and fortifying the granite foundation of Marsh Chapel, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reverberate just as loud as ever. Arguably the most iconic orator in modern history, King, his speeches and his ideologies still resonate within millions, as made apparent by the love that poured out for King during the 50th anniversary celebration of the 1963 March on Washington in August.
The affection much of the world holds for Dr. King makes Brandon Dirden’s job difficult. Dirden stars as King in All The Way, a play documenting the social and political transformations of the 1960s that opens at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge on Sept. 13. Dirden will star alongside TV megastar Bryan Cranston, who will play President Lyndon Johnson, and This Is Spinal Tap favorite Michael McKean as J. Edgar Hoover.
In an interview with The Daily Free Press, Dirden spoke reverently of All The Way as a “living document” for a “complicated” era. But even with the opportunity to play a personal hero among such talent, Dirden admitted that he initially hesitated to step into the shadow of an American icon.
“Everybody has an ingrained image of who this man was: His voice, his look, his cadence, his speeches,” Dirden said. “And in one way, as an actor, I have to honor that. But, there’s absolutely no way I am going to be able to do a perfect imitation … and I don’t think it would service the play.”
Instead, Dirden explained his preparation for the role, in which he strove to capture King’s “essence” — the identifiable core of the Civil Rights leader – even if it meant viewers not recognizing Dirden onstage. When asked to choose one word to describe the essence of King, Dirden immediately answered “faithful.”
“I think King was operating on a higher plain of faith than most of us can even fathom,” Dirden said. “The faith that change can happen, the faith that we can mobilize our community … that thousands and thousands of people are going to listen to you and that it will affect change, that is a mindboggling amount of faith.”
Despite the burden of accurately portraying such an iconic figure, Dirden spent years attempting to absorb King’s essence. As a graduate of Morehouse College — King’s undergraduate alma mater — Dirden said the icon’s legacy was invoked daily and was inescapable. In fact, Dirden explained that at Morehouse College, students are constantly challenged to “raise the crown,” or to go beyond the great works of their predecessors.
“We wear the crown, but you supersede that, you raise the bar, you make the crown even higher for men to aspire to wear,” Dirden said. “[King] was certainly a huge inspiration for all of us at Morehouse … you felt like you were part of a really special purposed society. It was a challenge … to go make the world better in whatever way you can.”
In taking on the role of King in All The Way, Dirden said he saw his own opportunity to “raise the crown.” While he acknowledged that not everyone could organize a civil rights movement, Dirden said he believes sharing King’s essence with audiences may help “expose humanity for what we are so that hopefully, we can become better people for it.” In the same way, Dirden urged that All The Way is not a “history lesson,” but rather a piece of theater that “lives and breathes” as it teaches.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Dirden said. “I think that even though All The Way plays in the past, we’re going to see a lot of ourselves.”
While the Loeb Theatre in Cambridge is a sizeable venue, Dirden admitted that his depiction of King will never move as many listeners as King himself had on the Washington Mall that fateful August day. Still, on his smaller stage, Dirden said he hopes All The Way will empower viewers to endeavor for good because, as history shows, a movement can start with just the faith of a single individual.
“Hopefully, by seeing the performance, you will see that even though you are flawed … you still have the ability to do extraordinary things through faith, through belief,” he said. “You have the power to affect people in ways you never knew possible.”