Fit for King: Brandon Dirden receiving rave reviews for civil rights play 'All the Way' on Broadway
It's hard to imagine Brandon Dirden landing a bigger role than the one he's playing right now on Broadway.
The University of Illinois theater alum is portraying Martin Luther King Jr. opposite Bryan Cranston, who plays President Lyndon B. Johnson in "All the Way."
It's set in 1964, essentially LBJ's first year in office, and covers the backslapping and other machinations the president and others engaged in to get the Civil Rights Act passed, after it had languished in Congress.
Kathleen Conlin, a UI theater professor, saw "All the Way" three weeks ago in New York. She said both Dirden and Cranston are fabulous, particularly in the physicality each brings to his role.
"Brandon keeps Martin Luther King really active, in terms of his thought processes and being politically very astute," she said. "Part of that is the writing and part of it is what Brandon brings to the role."
After each performance of "All the Way," Cranston, one of the hottest actors on the planet — and Dirden come out and take their bows together.
"All the Way," written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, has been packing the 1,445-seat house — even though its running time is three hours, Dirden said by phone on Tuesday.
The play at the Neil Simon Theatre also attracts "a revolving door of who's who," he said.
"That's been so awesome. It's not just A-list stars. We have people involved in the movement who come to see this show."
Among them have been David Goodman, a brother of Andrew Goodman, one of three young civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964, and Clarence Jones, King's adviser, lawyer and speechwriter.
Ramsey Clark, who served as U.S. attorney general in the Johnson administration, has seen the play twice; U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., has seen it three times.
Other pols who have shown up are Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the U.S. House, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who told the cast he was recommending the play to Barack Obama.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we did see the president before we're done" on June 29, Dirden said.
In April, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama went to Broadway to see "A Raisin in the Sun," starring Denzel Washington and Dirden's brother, Jason — also a UI theater alum.
Brandon Dirden doesn't know whether any of King's relatives have seen "All the Way." Johnson's daughters, Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, did — and brought 150 friends with them.
After the performance, the Johnson sisters chatted with cast members and complimented them on their performances.
A weighty play
Brandon Dirden, who's 36, views "All the Way" — The New York Times described it as a "mighty slab of history" — as a remarkable experience, not because he's acting opposite Cranston, who portrayed Walter White in the hit TV series "Breaking Bad" and who is now starring in the box office-busting movie "Godzilla."
Instead, Dirden is blown away by people who have seen the play, recognize him in Midtown and stop to share with him their experiences during the '60s and to chat about the state of the country, then and now.
"When I'm doing Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' I don't get those stories," Dirden said. "You get, 'Oh, yeah, I played Hamlet once.' This is a very different thing."
The actor also views "All the Way" as a creation myth that tells of how the United States became the country it is today, with guarantees of rights for minorities.
He believes it covers ground that led to him acting on Broadway today.
"Those things were not probable before 1964 — even if possible, not probable," he said. "We're continuing to break down walls.
"The first openly gay NFL athlete was drafted this year. The first openly gay NBA player. We continue to make strides across gender lines as well."
Prepping for King
Dirden is on stage as King eight times a week. He prepared for the role by listening to recordings of King and working with a vocal coach. He doesn't aim to sound exactly like King, though people have told him he does.
"There are 20 characters represented in this play, and Dr. King certainly is the most well-known," the actor said. "His sound is iconic. I knew I would be crucified if I didn't have the flavor of it.
"But if you just break it down to what he sounds like, then you don't get it. When I understood it was more about the content and allowing the substance of what he was saying to come through, then I was able to produce sounds more in the ballpark of Dr. King."
Dirden also has strived on stage to be the man, not the myth. For a deeper understanding of King, he read his book "Why We Can't Wait," which includes the civil rights leader's reflections on crucial events in 1963, as well as his letters from a Birmingham jail.
Dirden also looked at digitized documents from the King Center in Atlanta and perused the Southern Christian Leadership Conference budget to learn what King and his crew were up against.
"It's a bottomless pit of information. That's the fun part," he said.
Not a newbie
Dirden isn't a newcomer to New York theater. He had already received good roles and reviews in the city — in 2012 he won an OBIE and a Theater World Award for his turn as smooth-talking Boy Willie in an off-Broadway production of August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson."
Dirden's father, Willie, is an actor, too, but talked his son into studying a more remunerative subject — chemical engineering — at Morehouse College, which happens to be King's alma mater.
Dirden ended up with a bachelor's degree in math, though. While at Morehouse, he pursued his passion for theater by taking theater courses at nearby Spelman College.
He then decided to get a master's of fine arts degree in acting. He considered a half-dozen schools.
Henson Keys, head of the UI's acting program, had heard of Dirden from one of Keys' students at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
Keys decided to recruit Dirden for the UI's three-year MFA program.
"His audition was terrific, and he was my first choice for the program," Keys recalled. "I am absolutely thrilled at Brandon's well-deserved success. His talent and charisma have paid off after several years of 'paying his dues.' He worked his way from regional rep to off-off-Broadway to off-Broadway to Broadway hits.
"The sky's the limit for this guy's career."
More than an MFA
Dirden got more than an MFA and good training at Illinois. He found a wife.
Crystal Dickinson, also an actress, was in her second year of her MFA studies when Keys asked her and her classmates to reach out to prospective students.
After seeing Dirden's head shot, she offered to call him. Their initial conversation was like one between old friends, Dirden remembered.
The two met in person the first day he arrived on campus. They also performed in Dirden's first play here.
Eventually their friendship became a romance. The two married in 2006 and on March 31 welcomed their first child, Chase.
Like her husband and brother-in-law, Dickinson also is landing good roles and garnering good reviews. She actually played wife to her husband on stage in "All the Way" in Cambridge, Mass. She opted out of being Coretta Scott King on Broadway because she was pregnant with Chase.
After "All the Way" closes, Brandon Dirden will take time off to be with his wife and son. Then he will audition again; he loves theater but hopes to work in television and movies too.
The Brandon Dirden file
Television and film
Steven, "Ir/Reconcilable," a short film by Blue Sky Clouds now in post-production, starring Jasmine Guy
Park security guard in the "The Big C," Showtime.
Marcus, a recurring role in Tyler Perry's "House of Payne," TBS
Martin Luther King Jr., "All the Way"
Albert, Kevin, "Clybourne Park"
Security guard/trader, "Enron"
Ensemble and understudy, "Prelude to A Kiss"
Sly, "Detroit '67"
Boy Willie, "The Piano Lesson"
Captain Scott, "Peter and the Starcatcher"
Ely, "Bottom of the World"
Nate Edwards, "The First Breeze of Summer"
For more credits and information, visit brandondirden.com.