For thirty years, Denise Giardina has captivated readers with nationally bestselling novels including Storming Heaven, Saints and Villains, Good King Harry, and Emily’s Ghost. But more recently, the acclaimed novelist has turned to the stage, writing a powerful two-act play titled Robert and Ted, which traces the relationship between the late Senators Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. [End Page 57] With an historian’s eye and a novelist’s perception, Giardina recounts and imagines their evolution from political foes to allies and firm friends, showing “all their flaws” as well as their “basic humanity and basic decency,” as she explained to the Charleston Gazette. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, Watergate, the Reagan administration, and the second Iraq War, the play offers a searing commentary on contemporary political discourse. Robert and Ted debuted with an on-stage reading at FestivALL, an arts celebration in Charleston, West Virginia, in June 2012.
ACT I, SCENE 5
(Multimedia: scenes from the civil rights movement—dogs attacking demonstrators, fire hoses turned on children, marches on the Selma bridge, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking.)
Lights up. Byrd is speaking while Kennedy enters and sits at a desk and listens, a look of disgust on his face.
And now I’d like to share with the august members of the Senate the society page of the Welch Daily News. Mrs. Herman Wells has returned from a trip to visit her daughter in Galax, Virginia. Meanwhile members of the Brooks Garden Club led by Mrs. Charles Lockwood are engaged in a beautification project on the hillside between the train depot and the Veterans’ War Memorial Building. They are planting a variety of both annuals and perennials.
(Stands and claps sarcastically) Congratulations. Fourteen plus hours speaking against the Civil Rights Act, the longest [End Page 58] filibuster in Senate history, and for a great cause. You must be worn out.
CHARLES BOOKER enters and listens.
(Tired) Not the longest. That would be Strom Thurmond in 1957.
Oh, my apologies! Worthy company! Despite Bull Connor and his dogs attacking children in the streets of Birmingham, and those four little girls who were killed in their Sunday school classroom, despite the murder of Negro citizens and civil rights workers across the South. I hoped you might be better than this.
(Angry) Of course the murder of civil rights workers is terrible. And those little girls—How dare you accuse me of supporting such atrocities! But the Constitution—
The courts will decide the constitutionality of this law.
The courts will assume we in the Senate have done our job first, and that will sway their ruling. The Constitution gives the right to make these sweeping changes to the states, not the federal government.
You know, you remind me of those Christians who interpret the Bible literally. We didn’t file the Constitution away in [End Page 59] a bank vault when the ink dried. The Constitution lives, it breathes, it responds to change. That’s its genius.
Change should come after people demand it, not because a law forces them to it, and the support for changing race relations just isn’t there yet, not in many parts of the country. White people in the South look at all these demonstrations and Negroes getting arrested for openly defying the law and they feel threatened. That’s why they accuse Negroes of not knowing their place.
Tell me, Senator, about a butcher from a coal camp in West Virginia who didn’t know his place. Shouldn’t you be back in Stotesbury hacking up dead pigs?
Byrd is so furious he is momentarily speechless.
(Interrupts) Senator Byrd? Perhaps you’d like to explain to my little boy why the Constitution won’t allow him to swim in the city pool back home? Or why, if he gets hungry, a restaurant that serves cheeseburgers isn’t his—(makes imaginary quotation marks in the air)—place?
(Caught by surprise) Who are you?
My name is Charles Booker...