'American Scrapbook' draws on Kennedy family's favorite poems

POETIC LICENSE: Theodore M. Snead, left, Tonya Beckman Ross and Matthew McGloin are among seven Washington-based actors interpreting verses onstage at the Kennedy Center.
POETIC LICENSE: Theodore M. Snead, left, Tonya Beckman Ross and Matthew McGloin are among seven Washington-based actors interpreting verses onstage at the Kennedy Center. (Carol Pratt)
By Jane Horwitz
Wednesday, January 26, 2011

How long has it been since you read or recited "Paul Revere's Ride" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? Or Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"? How about Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee"? Or Langston Hughes's "Mother to Son"?

Seven Washington-based actors will perform these works and others in "American Scrapbook: A Celebration of Verse" at the Kennedy Center's Family Theater from Saturday through Feb. 6. The hour-long piece, which the center recommends for audiences 9 and older, is part of the center's 50th-anniversary celebration of the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

Playwright Jason Williamson was commissioned to create "American Scrapbook," and as his starting point, he used two of Caroline Kennedy's books, "The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis" and "A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children."

In a preface, Williamson says the Kennedys "had this tradition of having a poetry scrapbook when they were kids [and] I was like, oh, there you go!" He'd found a hook for the theater piece.

"It's poetry and it's Kennedys all in the same thing . . . what if the play is a Kennedy family poetry scrapbook as an emerging, unifying frame?"

Director Kathleen Amshoff says the structure Williamson created, dividing the poems he selected into four sections - nature, reflection, civil rights and America as a whole - helped her stage what is really a plotless arc. She's "trying to think of each chapter as kind of a cohesive unit, and flowing from the world of one poem into the world of the next poem. And then, there's a little bit of a palate cleanser in the prologue [written by Williamson] to each new chapter. "

Williamson and Amshoff say the poems shouldn't be viewed as being for any particular group. "Caroline Kennedy anthologized these poems, but they're our American heritage. They belong to all of us," the director says. Amshoff doesn't want the audience to leave feeling "like 'Stopping by Woods' should be read by an old white man."

Williamson completes his friend's thought: "All of these belong to all of us. We have a woman playing Paul Revere, that sort of thing." And actress Tonya Beckman Ross performs Frost's famous piece about the woods.

"It has a very strict form, which sort of sets it apart from a lot of the other poems. . . . That's been really fun to play with," she says.

For "The Rider" by Naomi Shihab Nye, actor Matthew McGloin becomes a boy on skates escaping loneliness. Then the poet wonders if you can do that on a bike, too, pedaling through "a cloud of sudden azaleas." McGloin says, "The image of that is just really, really beautiful . . . literally leaving one's loneliness behind you, panting on a street corner."

Cold War drama

The feud that for decades affected American nuclear policy during the Cold War is back, though its main antagonists, physicists Edward Teller and J. Robert Oppenheimer, are no longer with us. Their characters will face off at 8 p.m. Friday at the George Mason University Center for the Arts.

"The Real Dr. Strangelove" will be presented by L.A. Theatre Works, which produces radio dramas and tours them for live audiences. Actors John Vickery and John Getz will play Teller and Oppenheimer, respectively. The play is British playwright Peter Goodchild's take on the falling-out between Manhattan Project physicists Oppenheimer and Teller, who, after Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the end of World War II, parted ways over how the hydrogen bomb should be developed and how to deal with the Soviets.

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