44 Plays for 44 Presidents is a 2-hour show comprised of short, biographical scenes highlighting the lives of all the American presidents. Their mistakes and successes are celebrated by a company of actors who take turns donning a star-spangled coat that symbolizes the presidency. Beginning with George Washington’s almost Eden-like perfection, the scenes shift frequently between the comic and the tragic, from Ben Franklin giving Thomas Jefferson a Borscht Belt-style roast, to the frank portrayal of William Henry Harrison’s life as an “Indian slayer,” and later the grim onset of the Civil War. Act II starts off the twentieth century with the assassination of William McKinley, moves through a Nixon-praising dance number and a George Bush, Sr. mini-musical about dirty campaigning, and arrives at a polarized America in both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama plays. Audience members consider their role in shaping the history they’ve just witnessed, as they are left to ponder where the presidency has gone since its fall from paradise… and where it will go next.
The “History” of 44 Plays for 44 Presidents
In 2002, the Neo-Futurists of Chicago premiered their original production of a show called 43 Plays for 43 Presidents. Soon after, Dad’s Garage Theatre in Atlanta mounted the show and former President Jimmy Carter came to see it about a week after he’d won the Nobel Prize. (Apparently he laughed hard during the Regan play.)
In 2004, the original cast was asked to remount the show at Theatre on the Lake, and also toured to the Carter Center in Atlanta, and even did a performance at the Chicago Historical Society. But the show didn’t die there, because that year a publisher called Playscripts, Inc. decided to take a chance on the show.
31 high school, college and professional productions later, the newly titled 44 Plays for 44 Presidents is still being performed across the country.
During each election cycle, the number of productions increases. In 2008, the Actors Theatre of Louisville, a world famous regional theater, mounted a production directed by Sean Daniels, to coincide with the last presidential election.
In 2012, were we to do nothing, we would expect big things. But we’re not doing nothing.