Cygnet’s Atwater an Acting Tour de Force
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Never underestimate the power of an early death to rivet an audience and hold people in their seats, crying. That’s the gimmick in Atwater: Fixin’ to Die, a good but somewhat disappointing one-person play by Robert Myers that premiered in New York in 1992, just one year after its real-life central character’s death from a brain tumor at age 40, and is having its first San Diego production at the Cygnet Theatre in the Rolando area just east of College Avenue. Though it doesn’t really do that good a job depicting the contradiction suggested by its title (the name of a 1930’s blues song by Bukka White — covered by Bob Dylan in 1961 — that’s played at the start of the show) between Lee Atwater, killer Republican political strategist and master of the veiled exploitation of racism in campaigns; and Lee Atwater, lover of African-American music and quite good amateur blues musician who recorded with B. B. King on an album that got a Grammy nomination, the piece does provide an opportunity for a tour de force for a star actor, which Jeffrey Jones seizes brilliantly in Cygnet’s production.
Harvey Leroy Atwater — it’s not surprising that someone so obsessed with being cutting-edge and cool dropped the first name altogether and abbreviated the second to “Lee” — was born in Atlanta, Georgia on February 26, 1951. His family moved to South Carolina, where he grew up and, he explains in the play, he became a Republican because the Democrats were the establishment throughout the South in the 1950’s and early 1960’s and he wanted to be a political rebel. As luck — good or bad, depending on your politics -— would have it, Atwater’s first political job was as an intern for Democrat turned independent turned Republican Senator Strom Thurmond, architect of Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in the 1968 election and the man who did more than anyone else to help the Republicans shake their image as the “party of Lincoln” and realign themselves — and the nation — as the party of racist backlash and white supremacy.
Atwater learned Thurmond’s lessons well. In 1980, working for Ronald Reagan in the Southern primaries, he smeared rival John Connally with the accusation that he was trying to buy Black votes by hiring African-American ministers for a voter registration drive. Also that year, he won a Congressional race in his home state for Republican Floyd Spence by having callers do so-called “push polls” — calls that are ostensibly from impartial pollsters but are actually from a campaign and communicate derogatory information about their opponent in the form of “questions” — “exposing” Spence’s opponent, Democrat Tom Turnipseed, as a member of the NAACP. In 1984 he was involved in the re-election campaign of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms against African-American Democrat Harvey Gantt, and produced a commercial showing the hand of an otherwise unseen white job seeker filling out an application and then crumpling it up as the voiceover explained that because of affirmative-action preferences for people of color, whites need not apply.
Atwater’s most famous bit of race-baiting came when he managed the campaign of George H. W. Bush, the current president’s father, in 1988 and targeted Bush’s opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, over the work-furlough program for prisoners that had let out convicted rapist and murderer Willie Horton, who’d committed another rape while on one of his furloughs. The play depicts Atwater as learning about this case from a man in a bar — actually the Horton case had first been dug up by opposition researchers for Al Gore in his campaign against Dukakis for the Democratic nomination — and being savvy enough never to use Horton’s image in a Bush commercial even while giving public statements that the Bush campaign was going to make it seem like Horton was Dukakis’s running mate.
But Atwater’s dirty tricks didn’t stop at inciting racist backlash. In 1980 he successfully trashed Tom Turnipseed by exposing that, as a teenager, Turnipseed had gone through electric shock therapy for depression. In 1984 he went after Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro by revealing that her parents had been indicted for numbers-running in the 1940’s. On the 1988 Bush campaign, Atwater worked closely with George W. Bush and his political guide, Karl Rove, and the tactics Bush used to get re-elected in 2004 — particularly the formation of a front group, the so-called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” to attack opponent John Kerry’s war record through “independent” campaigns that, like the Willie Horton ads in 1988, were produced and put on the air by outside organizations with no official tie to the Bush campaign — certainly suggest Atwater’s long-term influence.
The real Lee Atwater was so much of a skunk that even fellow Republican political consultant Ed Rollins called him “ruthless,” compared him to Iran-contra figure Ollie North, and said Atwater “just had to drive in one more stake” against each opponent. Playwright Myers, faced with the problem of re-creating this character as someone an audience would pay good money to watch for an uninterrupted hour and a half, turned Atwater into a lovable rogue, a bottomless fount of rock ’n’ roll energy enlisted in the service of some unlikely political figures. Though the play was written while George Bush the Elder was still President, one of Atwater’s lines — boasting about his success in getting voters to believe that Bush, Connecticut-born preppie and Yale grad with a father named Prescott, was “a man of the people” — rings all the truer now given Karl Rove’s even greater success in doing the “man of the people” makeover on Bush II.
Though Myers’ play has its problems — it really doesn’t tell us what made Lee run, whether he believed in the righteousness of the Republican cause or was just in it (as Myers’ Atwater says at one point) for “the game,” and the tearjerking finale makes all too blatant use not only of Atwater’s early death but his deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism and the letters of apology he wrote to Turnipseed and Dukakis — it does one thing triumphantly well. It shows just how well the anarchic, individualistic, I-do-what-I-want-and-fuck-anybody-else attitude of rock ’n’ roll — which those of us who grew up on the Left in the 1960’s thought would lead us to a utopia of peace, love and socialism — actually dovetailed with the Right and its traditional emphasis on individualism over collectivism. Atwater and the Republicans of his generation accomplished the feat of making Right-wing politics seem edgy and cool, so much so that to this day — even with Republicans in complete control of the entire federal government — the talk-radio hosts who are Atwater’s real heirs still portray the Right and its people as an embattled minority desperately struggling against a liberal/secular-humanist/anti-militarist/anti-American “establishment.”
Indeed, the scathing tongue and leaping energy of Atwater — at least as Myers wrote him and Cygnet’s astonishing star, Jeffrey Jones, plays him — suggests that had he lived, and had the Democrats won the 1992 election the way they actually did, Atwater’s perfect home after his inevitable resignation from the chair of the Republican National Committee would have been a talk-radio show. Not only have plenty of disgraced and even criminally convicted Republicans like G. Gordon Liddy, Oliver North and Roger Hedgecock (the latter two had their convictions reversed on appeal) found comfortable homes on the air, many of the Right-s talk-radio stars have come from backgrounds in rock ’n’ roll (Rush Limbaugh was a rock D.J. and Hedgecock a concert promoter) and adapted the energy of rock into political talk. If Atwater were still alive, he’d fit in beautifully on the Clear Channel or Fox networks — especially if he was really as edgy, energetic and ball-of-fire intense as Jones plays him.
Cygnet gives Atwater: Fixin’ to Die a keep-it-simple production, using cutouts to represent the people Atwater interacted with — Presidents Reagan and Bush, Senator Thurmond, Dan Quayle (Atwater’s attempts at damage control on Quayle are among the best parts of the script), Dukakis, Horton and the anonymous convicts (or actors playing same) who stood in for Horton in the Bush campaign’s “official” commercials in 1988. A single piece of furniture doubles as Atwater’s desk and the hospital bed in which he dies. (Cygnet’s founding director, Sean Murray, gets credit as set designer.) Director Rosina Reynolds does what she can with a script that depends totally on the talents of its lead (and only) actor, and Jeffrey Jones plays the character to the nines, absolutely credible both in the energetic early scenes and the quieter later ones in which he has to confront the imminence of his own death. Actors Veronica Baker, Phil Beaumont, Jonathan Dunn-Rankin, M. Scott Grabau, Tim Graves, T. J. Johnson, Marc Overton and Rojo Reynolds are credited with offstage voices, and Grabau — who in addition to being one of the voices doubles as lighting designer and triples as sound designer — deploys them effectively, especially in the surprisingly moving finale in which Atwater gets dueling elegies from the first President Bush and B. B. King.
Towards the end, Myers’ script requires Jones to play two other people besides Atwater — Louisiana gubernatorial candidate David Duke (whom Atwater repudiated because his Ku Klux Klan and white-supremacist past represented the obvious race-baiting of old rather than the subtle 1980’s kind Atwater was a master at) and a Black student protester at Howard University demanding Atwater’s resignation from the board of the historically African-American college. Jones rises to these challenges, too, and the addition of other people brings such a lift to the drama it seems a pity Myers didn’t write it as a one-person multiple-character show along the lines of Anna Deveare Smith’s works. Having more people in the dramatis personae would have relieved us of the weariness of watching Atwater do his schtick over and over and over again — and would have given Jones even more to work with than the piece does as it stands.
Nonetheless, the Cygnet production of Atwater: Fixin’ to Die offers a thrilling evening at the theatre and an acting tour de force by its star. It’s well worth seeing just to watch Jeffrey Jones.
Atwater: Fixin’ to Die plays through Sunday, June 18 at the Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El
Cajon Blv’d., Suite N. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $22 to $26 and can be purchased by phone at (619) 337-1525 x3 or online at www.cygnettheatre.com