With looping photoshopped images of gun-wielding presidents riding imaginary creatures and John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” fading out in the background, a spotlight shines on Justice Robinson ’18. Wearing a red and white baseball shirt emblazoned with “U.S.A.” and American flag Converse sneakers, Robinson walks out from the darkness, announcing the presidency of George Washington.
This scene introduces the beginning of “44 Plays for 44 Presidents,” a Theater-920 class production about the 44 presidents and two current presidential candidates. Directed by Kevin Heelan and Allen Grimm, Instructors in Theatre, the performances will take place this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Steinbach Theater. Since there are only 18 cast members but many more roles to fill, each actor will play multiple characters throughout the course of the play.
“The play is about the humanization of 44 presidents. It shows the foibles of being a person. This is the kind of play I thought would [incorporate] not only the election, but the history of elections and the presidency and American history,” said Grimm.
Playing Bill Clinton, Ian Hurley ’19 stands amidst a group of swooning women, played by Grace Anthony ’17, Kiarah Hortance ’17, Kalina Ko ’17, Makenna Marshall ’18, Justice Robinson ’18, Evelyn Wu ’18, and Junah Jang ’20. Hurley highlights Clinton’s Arkansas accent and goes around the circle of women, flirting with and sensually talking to each person.
“Bill Clinton’s scene is really entertaining. It portrays him as a sort of womanizer. It was really fun to work with [Hurley], who is playing Bill Clinton, because Ian’s not at all comfortable being really subjective and derogatory,” said Lesley Tilghman ’19, assistant director of the production.
In contrast, Hillary Clinton, played by Makenna Marshall ’18 stands for the ideals of feminism in her scene. Marshall exudes Clinton’s level of independence as she struts her way up to the stage and confidently asks for a beat. She begins to rap about gender equality and dares the audience to say more negative things about her femininity. In agreement with Marshall, the other female actors in the cast join in enthusiastically.
“All women experience some of the same sexism Hillary Clinton does, on the daily. With Hillary, there’s a part where all the women sing a rap with her. We get it. We get being torn down for our appearances. We get being torn down for the actions of men around us,” said Nell Fitts ’18, an actress in the show.
Thomas Jefferson’s play begins with Ko, playing Thomas Jefferson, righteously donning the presidential coat. Benjamin Franklin, played by Niko Skrivanos ’17, storms in, dearly holding onto a white kite, which symbolizes his discovery of electricity, and ambushes the entire scene. Franklin continuously throws insults at a stuttering Jefferson, highlighting Jefferson’s inferiority intellectually, politically, and socially, causing him to finally collapse to the floor.
“Thomas Jefferson is a really interesting historical figure. One thing about the Thomas Jefferson scene is we don’t really delve in too much into Thomas Jefferson’s character, but I always have such a good time watching Niko and learning more about Benjamin Franklin,” said Fitts.
Bennett Sherr ’17, playing Lyndon B. Johnson, walks alone with his brown trench coat splattered on the floor center stage, illuminated by a single spotlight. He cries out about the hardships and brutality of the world, referencing the difficulties of his presidency such as the death of Martin Luther King Jr., paralleling another scene in the play where Andrew Johnson also laments the evils in the world that take the life of Abraham Lincoln.
“The cool thing about [Lyndon B. Johnson’s act] is that his monologue is mirrored after [Andrew Johnson’s] monologue. [They] just [perform] it at different times for different reasons, but it’s really cool to see how those monologues worked for both Johnsons,” said Sherr.
With this year’s production of “44 Plays for 44 Presidents,” Grimm not only hopes to entertain the audience, but also to initiate conversation around campus surrounding the current election and the history of the presidency.
“I don’t know what the audience is necessarily going to get, because this is only a very small perspective on the history of the United States. There are forgotten presidents; there are awful human beings who were presidents. It actually contextualizes this election. You know, this is not the first time that people felt that the Union was in danger. The hope is that it makes people think about the breadth of this country and how long we’ve been here and do it in a theatrical way,” said Grimm.
Editor’s Note: Kalina Ko is an Arts Editor, Niko Skrivanos is a Layout Editor, and Evelyn Wu is an Associate Illustration Editor for The Phillipian.