This show got so much right, in my opinion. I truly enjoyed the wit, the costumes, the gender politics, and the fascinating decision to cast a black performer in the role of future president George W. Bush. A black historian with whom I work often encourages the rest of us to look for blackness in unexpected places. As a politician, Bush did exceptionally terribly with the black vote. Reasons dated back to Willie Horton (as illustrated well in this piece) and forward to the South Carolina primary vs. McCain (about whose adopted daughter, a woman of color, the Bushes notoriously generated rumors she was McCain’s illegitimate daughter with a black domestic worker). All told, Bush ranks among the most atrociously racist figures in U.S. politics. And Lee Atwater helped him keep that racism plausibly deniable to the whites who voted for him. But this play’s casting reminds us of another voter, just as essential as all those whites. 10% of black voters did indeed turn out for Bush in the 2000 campaign. Surely a diversity of reasons pulled this small number blacks to the GOP: neoliberal free enterprise, Neo-Conservative militarism, war on crime rhetoric, all the reasons some blacks still vote for the likes of Trump. But that tiny number, 10% of an already small population, was enough to carry Bush to victory in Florida and onward to eight illegitimate years in the White House. My liberal friends consistently complain that Nader and the Greens spoiled Florida. Sure we could also blame the hundreds of thousands disenfranchised from their experiences with mass incarceration. But we can also blame the 10% of blacks who presumably turned out for the Bush dynasty in Florida. And this play, perhaps by inadvertently exposing the blackness in Bush, helps establish a prehistory to his very much racialized success at U.S. politics. He won by appealing to the absolute worst in whites and simultaneously giving them presumed colorblindness as a pass for their bigotry. But without a few black folks who saw something in Bush, he would have lost, and the war in Iraq never would have happened.
What I didn't like
I always assume whites are more racist behind closed doors than we have the power to represent on stage. That’s not so much a problem I have with this play, which admirably wrestled with Atwater in all his contradictions as both a fan of black culture and a race baiter. Rather I’m afraid plays (and films) tend to shy away from illustrating racism for fear the participants (actors, creators, viewers) will become associated with racism. So what I’d have appreciated seeing from the the Willie Horton advertisement scene is a bit more along the lines of that intimacy whites share when they know no one is looking. Rather than debating whether the ad was racist, they might have better started from the question: is this ad so racist that it will backfire? Or, how racist do we need to go in order to win California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Florida, Michigan, and the other tremendously racist states that GHWB would later win in 1988?
My overall impression
Invigorating to see a period drama set when I was 2 years old. As a historian, who works on the U.S., and a politically engaged adult, who took an interest in politics beginning with GWB’s presidency, I found this narrative helped fill a gap in my knowledge (after my period of expertise but before the awakening of my consciousness).