A White House Field Trip

Note: This post was originally written in March 2008 while I was playing Jackie Kennedy in CHASING GEORGE WASHINGTON: A WHITE HOUSE ADVENTURE at the Kennedy Center. The Bush 43 administration had requested a command performance of the show for the children of military families serving overseas. Congress’ recent fiscal cliff gridlock and the resurgence of the gun debate got me thinking about “serving at the pleasure of the President” and what that means for all Americans.

I have to admit it: I was excited about being invited to perform in the East Room of the White House.

But the verve I felt at the initial invitation quickly disintegrated into a juxtaposition of feelings–flattered on one side and downright angry on the other.

This is not how I imagined I’d receive my invitation to the White House.

I fancifully saw myself doing something wonderful, something to “make a difference”–singing at a benefit concert or helping break ground in a new green government building (which, gratefully, may soon be law for all new government buildings). That would prompt the then-current president to ask me to tea. Then and only then would I gleefully pick out my outfit and hire a manners expert to transform me into a lady in time for my dinner in the State Dining Room. Do you see how rich my fantasy life is?

Fact is, I faced a much harder question than just “What do I wear?”: Could any true card carrying Green Party member actually step foot in the current home of George W. Bush without being excommunicated from her political affiliation?

Could I shake hands with Laura Bush and not imagine her as the original Stepford wife?

And then the inverse: Could I deny entertaining the children of military members serving overseas, men and women who answer the call and can’t let their personal beliefs, whatever they may be, interfere with their orders? Wouldn’t I feel guilty about abandoning those kids who probably need the distraction of laughter as much as anyone else? Could I entertain those children without giving into the desire to say something perhaps inappropriate and blunt about the nature of foreign occupation and military action?

There are so many policies and actions of this administration that I have protested and wrote letters against and petitioned to stop. And still we live under the tyranny of the Patriot Act (which Obama extended for another four years during a last minute deadline in March of 2011). Still the US exercises capital punishment. Still DC does not have equal congressional representation.

This invitation came quickly and unexpectedly, and I didn’t really have a choice to “respectfully demure.”

There were members of our artistic team who were equally as ambivalent about this White House field trip. One even went so far as to say his family thought it was disgusting that he would go to the White House during the reign of this administration.

But not everyone shared these sentiments. The composer was thrilled to be invited to the White House, and the stage manager couldn’t wait to actually sit on the furniture. After all, when we were last there as regular tourists of the museum parts of the house, we had to obey the velvet ropes. We didn’t sully the carpets with our sole-marking shoes. We had to wait in line outside. All of that would change this time.

Although we were already in previews at the Kennedy Center, we scheduled time during our tech rehearsals to make this White House appearance. Playwright Karen Zacarias wrote an abbreviated script for CGW:AWHA which we received on 06 March 2008, one day before the show.

Wearing our modified costumes and nervously twiddling our thumbs, we piled into a Kennedy Center shuttle bus and headed for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Unlike before, we weren’t simply dropped off–we pulled into the White House driveway! Wands waving, security officers inspected our costumes, double checked the spelling of our names on our IDs, and eventually allowed us to enter the White House through the honest-to-goodness front door.

In this foyer used to stand two massive Tiffany glass walls that kept the heat from disseminating out the front door every time someone walked in. During Teddy Roosevelt’s time, he sold the walls to a hotel and gutted the very Victorian entryway, changing it into what some might call neoclassical style. There are Greek pillars, vaulted ceilings, and white marble floors, complete with the president’s seal. The most interesting piece of furniture (to me, at least) in the house is currently situated in that cross hall: the Steinway piano which FDR commissioned for the house. It’s made in the “greco deco” style, sporting these god awful gold eagles as legs over a gorgeous art deco shaped grand piano, decorated with gold painted scenes of American music. Not something I’d purchase for myself; I’m still paying off my electric Alesis QS7, a late 20th century model that almost sounds like a real piano when plugged into my partner’s amplifier.

But apparently Alesis just won’t cut it for the very talented members of the President’s Band, a faction of the Marine Corps Band, who welcomed us to the house with classic American jazz played on, what else?, FDR’s Steinway. During our sound check in the East Room, I picked out A TRAIN and many other familiar tunes. It was lovely.

We headed for the bathroom, and on the way took in the China and Vermeil Rooms–places we had not previously been privy to–and for the first time I really liked the house itself. Amazingly beautiful and inventive portraits of first ladies tell stories of the ages, and strange and seemingly misplaced sculptures cast dancing shadows on the walls.

Karen’s play speaks true: when you tour the White House, you feel little connection to it. It is so far removed from your experiences and yet it isn’t so massive and gilded that you feel like you’re in a fairy tale. It’s just this old building that you can’t touch. It may as well have had all florescent lighting it was so uninviting during our first visit. But this time, the chandeliers were on, the light curtains drawn over the cloudy Washington skies. The gold and salmon carpets warmed the room, and the house began to feel like a home.

After rehearsing for an hour or so, we were given refuge in the actual Green Room which conveniently doubled as our green room. We patted our mouths dry with presidentially sealed napkins and drank out of the famous White House kitchen glasses. When it was time to begin, one of the military officers on special events duty ushered us into the hallway for photos with Mrs. Bush where she shook our hands and said hello. Trailing quickly behind her were Jenna Bush and Mrs. Bush’s assistant (more on her later). The only actor not posing for these potentially awkward photos was Harry Winter, our wonderful George Washington. He’d been hidden away in the East Room as a surprise for the children.

Mrs. Bush entered the East Room, with great fanfare and announcement, to welcome her guests, some of whom I think were students from Jenna Bush’s class last year. We were all itching to get on that tiny stage and do our damnedest without a set or lights. Mrs. Bush left the stage–it was time! And poor Kim Peter Kovac, producer at Kennedy Center, had to scoot Jenna Bush out of the way before we ran her over.

George (not the acting president–he was no where to be found) exploded into the scene with his rock and roll number, GEORGE WASHINGTON HAS LEFT HIS FRAME. We tricked ’em good, making the children think all the actors were already on stage, then AH HA! What a fun number to watch from behind the folding screen we used as backstage. The smiling faces in little slacks and dresses. Too cute.

The abbreviated show consisted mostly of the musical numbers, sans my favorite song, PEN AND INK, sung by the consummate Felicia Curry, and we wandered around the stage as if the massive moving columns we’d claimed as home in the Family Theatre at the Kennedy Center were moving right along with us. The kids laughed, the parents smiled, Mrs. Bush chatted with her friend next to her, and Jenna Bush stood in the back of the room smiling while her mother’s assistant was caught by UPI photojournalists making a wretched expression. Was she thinking, “I can’t believe this is my job! To have to watch family theatre?? This is what I have a masters in political science for??” Or was she thinking, “Oh my god, did that child in front of me make that smell?!” I guess we’ll never know.

In just 20 minutes we were done. We took our bows, Mrs. Bush joined us, and we followed her into cross hall, just feet from where the introspective and sexy portrait of JFK hangs. The band swung into action, and the gleeful children filed out, taking photos, shaking hands. It’s never too young to start teaching your kids about politics.

Nearly everyone had left, including some serious muckety mucks who had come to watch us (I know, I know–it’s terrible that I can’t remember who the assistant to the joint chiefs of staff was), and, as any decidedly effusive set of players would do, we boogied unabashedly to the President’s Band. It might not have been cricket, but it sure was fun.

Some very patient people had made at least a hundred individually decorated George Washington cookies, and very yummy ones at that. We piled on the bus munching on Georgie’s head (not the current, acting one–his is nowhere to be found) and returned to Kennedy Center, giddy with delight.

Should I have felt guilty at enjoying this once in a lifetime experience? Perhaps. Call it justification if you like, but I wish to believe that my performance at the White House, especially as Jackie Kennedy, is a reminder of what that home and that office can and should represent.

It’s not a perfect house. It’s not even an amazing house. But it’s truly our nation’s home, a nation that was borne of thinkers who believed in a new world–a world of science and philosophy, of equally important forces working to challenge each other to create fair laws and opportunities for everyone to realize themselves, even if we are still figuring out the important details to actualize those opportunities. If we could return to our roots–the best parts of them–maybe we all could collectively create a 21st century America that gives the world our greatest offerings: innovation, education, and the ability to choose our own paths.

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