“It was like being in the front row and watching the passing parade of history,” said Alonzo Fields, the first black chief butler of the White House. In the one-man performance titled “Looking over the President’s Shoulder,” Wendell Wright, playing Fields, gives audience members an especially intimate view of the former inhabitants of the most famous home in the world. The play, which was written and directed by James Still, is taken from the authentic diary and records of the late Fields.
Fields, faced with growing unemployment and the stresses of the depression, finds himself as a butler in the White House unexpectedly, after a stint studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music. His story begins in college, after he left his small hometown in Indiana, when he worked as a butler in a professor’s house to earn tuition money. When his professor, who entertained such guests as Herbert Hoover and Thomas Edison, unexpectedly dies, the Hoover family requests that Fields move his family to Washington to serve them.
The venue showing this play is the most appropriate in D.C. Ford’s Theatre is the optimal location not only because of its rich history, but also because the theater is intimate enough for a one-man show; it is not overwhelmingly large.
Also fitting is the way in which Fields simulates the presence of each president he served. He quickly acquires the etiquette required to serve Hoover and the three presidents who follow him. He shares guarded detail about each, stating, for example, that the Hoovers were extremely punctual people who dressed up for seven-course meals every day. The wait staff often hid in a supply closet from Hoover, whom they nicknamed “Smiley,” said Fields, “because he rarely did.”
After the formal meals of the Hoover presidency, the butlers were shocked at the requests of the Roosevelts, whose first meal in the White House consisted of clam chowder, eggs and fried potatoes, all set out on a buffet table. Fields expresses pain in joining the Roosevelt family Christmas when he was not permitted to see his own children on the same evening. It was custom for FDR to read “A Christmas Carol,” to which Fields proclaimed, “Sometimes the president was Bob Cratchit, and sometimes he was just Scrooge.”
The play also comments on the pain of seeing Marian Anderson sing at the White House, when Fields felt like his own vocal talents were being wasted in servitude. In this way, the play is about both defeat and triumph; while Fields is proud of the racial boundaries he crossed, there is an air of sadness and regret interlaced throughout all of his stories. But despite his sadness, the play is very witty, especially in Fields’ observations of the various heads of state.
On serving Winston Churchill, he says that the menu consisted of “a tumbler of sherry for breakfast, scotch for lunch and champagne for dinner.” Churchill told Fields that he was not to be thought of as an alcoholic, to which Fields replied, “Sir, I will support you to the last drop.”
The most touching moments of the play, however, occur during the Truman presidency. “President Truman – I always felt that he understood me as a man. Not just as a servant to be tolerated, but as a man,” says Fields. Truman, he adds, was the first president since Coolidge to actually set foot in the White House kitchen, and possibly the first ever to do so for the purpose of thanking the cooks. When Fields’ mother passed away, Truman arranged for him to fly back to Indiana in Air Force One, and sent flowers to the funeral. The appearance of these flowers not only caused the entire town to go to this funeral, but also helped the event make the front page of the local newspaper.
“Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” is a touching tribute to a man whose job’s importance was far too underrated. Fields’ service and the play itself both end as abruptly as they began – with a simple “Goodbye, Fields” from President Eisenhower, and a walk to his usual bus stop. After more than 21 years at the White House, he is ready to begin the vocal career he left behind so many years ago with regret. With mixed emotions, Fields ponders, “Perhaps this is what I was supposed to do anyhow. Sometimes, I dream about singing.”
“Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” is running now through March 7 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. N.W. All tickets are $25. For more information, call (202) 347-4833.