In ‘Prepare for Democracy!’ Teddy Roosevelt would like a few words with us

DC theater veteran B. Stanley returns to the stage as the fast-talking spirit of the former president — because 'Our democracy is in a dire strait.'

Prepare for Democracy! is an attempt to bring individuals with different political viewpoints on inequality of rights, power, and opportunity to a point where they can recognize common problems. Its tool is history. Its champion is the ghost of Theodore Roosevelt.

“But there are rules,” the ghost tells us: “I cannot say anything I did not say when I was alive, and I have limited time.”

B. Stanley as Theodore Roosevelt in ‘Prepare for Democracy!’ Photos by Michael Matason.

DC theater veteran B. Stanley returns to the stage as the fast-talking spirit of former President Theodore Roosevelt. He appears in a flash and bang, wearing spectacles and a brown suit with a long coat of the era. His characterization was excellent on opening night, as his study of audio tape had given him the accent and cadence. Stanley’s voice rises and lowers with the emotion of the subjects or stories. He moves often, within an 8×8-foot space in front of a stage curtain. Stanley’s movement keeps the action shifting.

Prepare for Democracy! is a production of Theatre Du Jour, an experimental group founded in DC in 1982 by B. Stanley and George Kaperonis. The one-man show performs in Adams Morgan at DC Arts Center, where Stanley was executive artistic director from 1994 to 2021. Prepare for Democracy! is a new direction for Theatre Du Jour. After spending years creating art the troupe felt was socially responsible that presented opportunities for respectful political dialogue, it found itself preaching to the choir. At the same time, society had become so polarized that respectful dialogue seemed impossible, according to the program.

Enter Teddy Roosevelt. Because “Our democracy is in a dire state.”

After studying Progressive Principles, a book of Roosevelt’s edited 1912 campaign speeches, Stanley decided to write a script based on text from the book for pre-COVID America. Of course, the pandemic forced several changes, including the play’s production timeline, and then came January 6, 2022, which makes this work even timelier.

Words Teddy used, like plutocrat and progressive, are back. For example, 99 members of the House, all Democrats, belong to the Progressive Caucus. Most recently Senator Chris Murphy mentioned “plutocrats” discussing the CHIPS Act. Roosevelt, a Republican turned Progressive member more than a century ago, used the terms regularly.

Roosevelt, himself a rich politician, took on politics controlled by the wealthy and business interests. His ghost still riles against them:

We who stand for the cause of progress, for the cause of the uplift of humanity and the betterment of mankind, are pledged to the eternal war against tyranny and wrong, by the few or the many, by a plutocracy or a mob. We stand for justice and fair play…

At present we are not suffering in any way from the tyranny of the minorities. We suffer from the tyranny of the bosses and the special interests, that is from the tyranny of the minority.

Roosevelt considered himself a proponent of humanity. (Granted, he favored white, healthy humans over others; the play neither defends nor debates his character.) “We test the worth of all men and all measures by asking how they contribute to the welfare of the men, women, and children of whom this nation is composed,” Roosevelt said (sounding like “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”).

Roosevelt said he wanted to eliminate special privileges “in politics and in business, and for getting a genuine opportunity for every man to show the stuff there is in him.” Today some in Congress are under fire for allegedly benefitting from insider trading during the COVID pandemic.

Almost as a bone to today’s progressives, Roosevelt favored the redistribution of prosperity, provided laws, regulations, labor costs, and transportation allowed for profit.

“We must pay equal attention to the proper distribution of prosperity,” Roosevelt says. “The only prosperity worth having is that which affects the mass of the people. But it behooves us to remember, there is no use in devising methods for proper distribution of prosperity unless the prosperity is there to distribute.”

Teddy often turns to Lincoln in fond remembrance and holds a not-so-special place for Robespierre. Roosevelt is the butt of his own humor explaining how a lengthy transcript, doubled over in his breast pocket, probably saved his life when a would-be assassin attempted to shoot him in the heart while on the campaign trail in 1912.

As a history buff, I enjoy this type of theater. However, this show is not, as billed, “an hour with the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt.” It lasts only 38 minutes.

Prepare for Democracy! plays through September 24, 2022 — Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm — presented by Theatre Du Jour performing at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets (general admission, $30; students and DCAC members, $25) online.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional. No vaccination status is required.

Cast: B. Stanley, Theodore Roosevelt; Technical and Directing assistance, Jerry Herbilla.


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