By Contributing Writer: Amanda Forker
When asked what his favorite Robert Kennedy quote was, David Arrow, writer and star of Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade, had many but there was an especially poignant one at the top of his list: “If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us.” Robert F. Kennedy (also known as Bobby) said these powerful words during a speech at Vanderbilt University on March 21, 1968, and they are just as true now as they were then.
In an interview conducted via Zoom on September 10, 2020, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Arrow on all things Kennedy, RFK, supporting the arts in the midst of a pandemic, and more. It was a riveting conversation with a man who is committed to telling RFK’s, or rather Bob’s (as Mr. Arrow fondly calls him) story from a unique perspective during a tumultuous time in both our nation’s and the world’s history, and in a format that’s brand new for Playhouse on Park’s audience members. Needless to say, viewers are in for an exciting theatrical experience with Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade.
About the Show
“This solo play portrays Kennedy during his short electrifying campaign for President of the United States. Told from Kennedy’s perspective, the play follows Bobby from his announcement to enter the race on March 16, 1968 to his last speech on June 4th at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The causes that Kennedy crusaded for and policies he championed on the campaign trail are remarkably relevant and incredibly prescient of the politics and concerns of today. The play contains many of Kennedy’s most famous and impactful speeches as well as his private apprehensions and some of the more personal, less publicized events of those four exhilarating months of his ill-fated campaign.” (http://kennedybobbyslastcrusade.com)
Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade had its world premier in 2018 at the Theatre at St. Clements in New York City, and it was to this same theater that Mr. Arrow returned in order to film the production that Playhouse on Park’s audiences will see. “This is the theatrical production, it’s not a movie…We wanted people watching to feel like they’re watching a stage play; albeit with [different] vantage [points]. It’s [not just] a camera stuck at the back [of the theater]; we do it much like the National Theater or Live at the Met. We intentionally didn’t want to lose the theatrical quality of the play.”
Mr. Arrow made clear that this play is not a sweeping biography of Bobby’s life. It doesn’t delve into Kennedy Family history or gossip; the Presidency or personal life of RFK’s famous brother, John; or even the majority of RFK’s own life before he decided to run for President. The fact that it explores such a short, yet fascinating, span of time leading up to a tragic and defining moment in American history, makes it all the more compelling.
An Idea Took Shape
The idea for writing a play either about JFK or RFK and their relationships with Martin Luther King Jr. came to Mr. Arrow some years ago, as many ideas often do- over drinks with a friend. “That’s sort of a typical thing one does after a show when you connect with someone,” he said. But according to Mr. Arrow, even though the play that he and his friend discussed has yet to be written, it did get him thinking about a possible show that would revolve around at least one of the Kennedy men.
Coincidentally, before he wrote Kennedy, he actually played the late Senator in another, different one-man show. In 2015 he starred in RFK (written by Jack Holmes) at the San Jose Stage Company for which he won a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award for his performance. When he was cast in the title role he did a lot of research on Bobby Kennedy, and as it happened, the “flood gates” opened. Mr. Arrow also credits Jack Holmes for “opening up Bob’s voice in a theatrical context.”
As Mr. Arrow was thrown into the world of Bobby Kennedy while performing in RFK, the world was witnessing the beginnings of the 2016 Presidential Election campaign season, and soon an idea for an altogether different play about Kennedy began to take shape. “I was just appalled by the rhetoric [on both sides]. It’s not what it used to be, or at least, it certainly wasn’t like Kennedy’s… I realized that what Bob was saying in 1968, particularly the issues with race and inequality, [was] incredibly relevant. And even more so today than it was when the idea of the play came to me in late 2016 [or early] 2017. And so I thought, a play that wasn’t about Bob Kennedy, the man, but the aspirations Bob Kennedy had for our country, specifically in 1968. Not trying to be persuasive politically, other than through Bob’s perspective. Let Bob do the persuading, not David….So, the play follows Kennedy’s campaign from the announcement to its conclusion and it was the speeches that [were] the leap frog, both for me into the play and for the play itself, to propel the story along.”
Speaking about the many facets of being an actor, he said, “I think one of the great opportunities as an actor, at least for me, is I get to learn about [things] and people whom I would not necessarily have had any previous interest in.” As we spoke, it became clear that Mr. Arrow feels a responsibility to know the character he is portraying inside and out, whether they are real or fictional. “I think actors are psychiatrists and historians….Every play is rooted in reality. That’s the combination of acting that appeals to me. Delving into the psychology of a person as well as the historical context.”
Since his foray into the world of the Kennedys, Mr. Arrow has definitely become an expert on Bobby, having read upwards of thirty books about him as well as researched extensively online. When asked if he had any book recommendations on the subject, he had many (at least two bookshelves worth), but two pivotal works while he was researching were: The Last Campaign by Thurston Clarke & Robert Kennedy: His Life by Evan Thomas.
Mr. Arrow is not only an RFK expert, though; it’s obvious that he also has an enormous amount of respect for the late Presidential candidate. Not willing to use unfounded, salacious gossip about Bobby or his family, he was committed to telling a well-rounded and robust story based on truth. He acknowledged the challenge of writing this type of show, however. “Whenever you do a one-person play about someone you respect, you are in clear danger of hero worship; and I can say I did my best to avoid it.”
Getting into the Politics
Now, some people may be asking themselves, I don’t like politics. Is this show for me? Mr. Arrow would argue, yes. “I think it could perhaps provide a new insight into what politics could be, and should be… I also hope that the play provides insight into his personality, his struggles, and the sort of odd things that can happen on a campaign. Things that you don’t expect or didn’t think about him..that life doesn’t stop because someone’s campaigning.”
Even when it comes to political parties, this play shouldn’t be classified as either Democratic or Republican; you don’t have to sit on one side of the aisle versus the other in order to enjoy it. “You know, Bob in 1968, was running a very liberal campaign, but he has, over the years, been embraced by a lot of people in the Republican [party] on the right…It certainly wouldn’t offend someone whose policies and practices are different.”
When asked what he hopes audiences will take away from the show, Mr. Arrow remarked, “I hope they will take away a better understanding of what politics should be, and that they perhaps have a greater responsibility to contribute to their society. It doesn’t always have to be writing checks [or] activism, [but] involvement…sometimes it’s just making sure you know what’s happening.” (Visit https://playhouseonpark.org/web2/Season12/Vote2020.html for more information on non-partisan voting initiatives.)
Theater in the Time of Covid
Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, not only was Mr. Arrow unable to perform Kennedy in person at Playhouse on Park, but he never even got to visit the theater. “I had a trip planned to see a show right before everything shut down…We were really looking forward to doing it on that stage, and maybe someday we will.”
Performing in a one-person show comes with its own challenges at the best of times and is always a feat in-and-of-itself. “…a one person play is not so lonely to perform, because you’re with the audience and they become your partner on stage. And their laugh here or chuckle there makes it alive and interactive.” Doing it for an empty theater, however, is another undertaking entirely, but Mr. Arrow had to do just that in order to bring this production to our audiences. “It was odd doing this for the camera because there’s no reaction from a camera. But having done [the show] a couple of times, I knew how reactions were [and] I did feel like I was talking to a person; I just pretended the camera was a person.”
Needless to say, many (if not most) actors, musicians, crew members & theater staff have been out of work since theaters shut down in March, so I was curious how it felt to actually be part of a production during these unparalleled times. “When we walked into the room, just to rehearse, it felt so wonderful to be back in the community that is my home; I just relax in a theater… I think both audiences and certainly, those of us who make theater, are desperate to get back to it. I’m glad people rent movies…but there’s still nothing like being in [that] shared experience. The theater is unique.”
Supporting the Arts During a Pandemic
It’s no secret that many Arts and Cultural institutions around the country are in danger of having to shut their doors forever. After all, how can they hope to pay their bills without patrons and audience members in their seats? Mr. Arrow, having performed in theaters around the country, had some thoughts. “If you’re in a community [that] has a theater or theater companies, and you think [they’re] an important part of your community’s culture and identity, then you need to keep that business alive until they can reassemble…I believe that communities need to support their local theaters. Absolutely.”
‘Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade’ was written by David Arrow and Directed by Eric Nightengale. Visit https://playhouseonpark.org/web2/Season12/mainstage_Kennedy.html for watch codes, information on the show, subscriber/general public viewing options, school resources, voting initiatives, a special partnership with River Bend Bookshop, and more.
*Playhouse on Park has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of community support during these difficult times. As we continue to adjust, ‘go with the flow,’ ‘pivot,’ and stay ‘fluid,’ we want you to know that we appreciate that you’re all doing the same! It’s been an amazing summer of new local partnerships and exciting outdoor performances, and we hope you’ll continue to experience this new age of theater with us as we produce meaningful art in creative ways during Season 12.
Ways to Watch Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade:
→WATCH AT HOME – A screening of the film can be purchased for $20; you will be sent a link which can be activated anytime between September 16th – October 4th. Once activated, you will have 48 hours to view the film of the play. [More information] / Click here to purchase.
→WATCH AT DUNKIN’ DONUTS PARK – A public, socially distanced screening will be held on Tuesday, September 22nd at 7pm (gates open at 6pm). Tickets are $12.50 (parking is $7) and concessions will be open. There will be a 20-minute Q&A immediately following the film with playwright/actor David Arrow and director Eric Nightengale. [More information] / Click here to purchase.
→WATCH AT THE INGERSOLL POP-UP DRIVE-IN – a public, socially distanced screening will be held on Thursday, Oct 1st at 7:30pm (gates open at 7pm) behind the Edmond Town Hall in Newtown.. Tickets are $20 per car load. [More information] / Click here to purchase.