In a normal year, I’m usually focusing on the local live theater scene in Washington, D.C. With COVID-19 still happening, I’ve started exploring the modified theater offerings within and beyond D.C., which introduced me to a few interesting productions. Some theaters are broadcasting live streams, while others are offering pre-recorded material for screening whenever it’s convenient to your schedule.
Recently, I found out about The Roustabouts Theatre Co., a nonprofit based in San Diego, California. You can purchase tickets to watch their virtual filmed presentation called Roosevelt: Charge the Bear, which has been extended through Dec. 13. It’s an intriguing one-man show about President Theodore Roosevelt, starring actor Phil Johnson. Johnson, a founding partner in The Roustabouts, co-wrote the play with Marni Freedman. Freedman is not only a graduate of USC film school, but she is also a Director of Programming for the San Diego Writers Festival.
The main problem that Roosevelt faces during the 90-minute historically-based play is the coal strike of 1902 in Pennsylvania. Neither the coal miners’ union nor the mine owners were budging an inch toward a peaceful way to resolve their issues. The fierce cold of winter was coming and the coal was direly needed. Would President Roosevelt send in the military to force a conclusion to the strike, as many big business supporters in the Republican Party hoped?
Right after becoming President, Roosevelt had irked his party by having Booker T. Washington, an African American, over for dinner at the White House in October 1901. The coal strike months later marked a crucial test for Roosevelt because members of his own administration and of Congress were suspicious of him and loyal to predecessor William McKinley’s agenda. Coming to the presidency after McKinley’s assassination, Roosevelt was well aware of the uphill battle ahead.
Even if you’re familiar with the details of this period in American history, it’s quite thrilling to watch the drama unfold in Freedman and Johnson’s play. Roosevelt enlists the press to help him appeal directly to the American people. And as the coal strike crisis worsens, the action cuts away to Roosevelt sharing anecdotes from his life. Often the challenges from earlier episodes paralleled what he’s undergoing during the coal strike dilemma, ramping up the drama and tension on both fronts.
Johnson not only portrayed Roosevelt, but at times adjusted his tone and voice to also play the characters mentioned in the President’s anecdotes. We get a great range from him as he channels Edith, Theodore’s wife; a confident Theodore Senior; and reporters tossing questions his way as he sits for a mid-day shave. He introduces us to various adversaries, including members of a stubborn Cabinet, the uncompromising parties to the strike, and the disdainful and snarling Senator Mark Hanna.
The one-man show also relied on the talents of director Rosina Reynolds, producer Rebecca Crigler, and other members of the team. Jordyn Smiley and assistant Ross Stewart headed up costume design, which was historically convincing. Attired in a brown suit, Johnson looked as if he’d stepped right out of old photo or video footage of TR. He even gestured as Roosevelt did.
Tony Cucuzzella laid out a simple but very effective set depicting several locations: the President’s office with a desk, chair, and windows, a couch to represent a family room, and a sort of railing lined with American flags to indicate a train tour. The layout and timing of the sound by Matt Lescault-Wood and the lighting by Joel Britt were quite crucial to bringing to life the scene and location changes as Johnson crossed the stage. For example, the train tours felt quite vibrant and well attended with the brighter stage light, flashes to indicate press photographers were at hand, and a brief patriotic tune.
Freedman and Johnson fit a substantial amount of material into the play, but it never feels like it’s veering off course. Viewers receive a good overview of major points in Roosevelt’s life which, as the play emphasizes a couple of times, were crucial in forming him for the leadership role he exercised as President. Those snippets of personal loss and trials also coalesce to show that he cared about the plight of poor workers and would not be frightened away by his opponents. This production is thought-provoking, entertaining, and even genuinely moving at times.
I am glad that I learned about The Roustabouts. I hope to catch more productions from them online and in-person in the months and years ahead.
Check out Roosevelt: Charge the Bear virtually now through December 13.