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Robert Kennedy's Life Brought to New York Stage


During his lifetime, Robert Francis Kennedy, the younger brother of President John Kennedy, was one of the most revered and reviled figures in U.S. politics. Robert Kennedy's tumultuous life is currently the subject of RFK , a one-man hit show off Broadway.

Robert Kennedy was one of the most polarizing figures of his generation, taking positions that galvanized the public on issues as diverse as civil rights, organized crime, and the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He was also the heir to an impossible legacy, viewed by many as a stand-in for his assassinated brother.

In RFK actor and playwright Jack Holmes portrays Robert Kennedy as a man haunted by the 1963 death of President Kennedy. Holmes says he had no point of view on Bobby Kennedy or the momentous issues of his times until he walked into an agent's office one day 10 years ago and she said he reminded her of Robert Kennedy.

"I just suddenly said 'Well, it is funny you should say that. I am going to write a one-man play about Bobby Kennedy'," said Holmes. "It had never occurred to me in my life. I had never thought of it. I think I was probably just trying to sound like I was pro-active. She looked at me and said 'I think you should do it.'"

A few months later, Holmes opened a box in a used bookstore.

"The entire box was books about Robert Kennedy," he said. "It was bizarre. It was really, really bizarre. I gave the guy about $20 for the whole box and I thought 'Okay, here is the start of my research.'"

At first, Holmes worked on the play sporadically, while pursuing his acting career. But the more he researched, the more intrigued he became. He says two things struck him about Robert Kennedy.

"One was just how fascinating this person's life was and how significant this person's life was and why didn't I learn about him? Why aren't people learning about him? And I thought, from a playwright's point of view, this is a dynamite stage character," explained Holmes. "From an actor's point of view, I thought this is a great character to play onstage."

It took years to put the play together and whittle it down from an original script that ran three hours long. Jack Holmes says he centered on Kennedy's own personal struggles and his involvement in issues such as civil rights and Vietnam, rather than the issues themselves.

"I really kept them to Bobby's own personal struggle and that was part of the editing process," he said. "It was really making sure that if it is in the play, what aspect of it is in the play is really Bobby's own involvement in it. It was just cutting it so that it was his struggle."

As attorney general in President Kennedy's Administration, Robert Kennedy became deeply involved in the American civil rights movement. After his brother's death, he ran for a U.S. Senate seat, representing New York, and began to question the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and challenge President Lyndon Johnson's decisions.

Throughout the play, Holmes weaves Kennedy's own speeches into his script.

"We must recognize that this world is changing, that it is complicated, that really our greatest and potential ally is the simple and enduring thought that everyone wants to be free. We can work together. I know we can. We can end the divisions in society, the divisions between blacks and whites, rich and poor, young and old, or over the war in Vietnam. Maybe it is true that this will never be a world in which there are no starving children, but we can reduce the number of starving children and if you don't do it, who will? Come my friends, it is not too late to seek a newer world," said Holmes in the play.

Holmes calls civil rights Kennedy's most important legacy.

"It's a very important issue to me," he said. "I think, of all of these things, I think it is probably with us more than anything. I think it with us more than people know."

During his 1968 quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, Kennedy campaigned against the war in Vietnam, which figures prominently in the play. But Jack Holmes says audiences who view his show as a comment on the U.S. involvement in Iraq are wrong.

"It was written before we had even gone to Iraq," continued Holmes. "When I premiered it in April 2003 we had just gone to war and this material had been written in 2002. In no way was it a response to our being involved in anything. I just kept it to what he had been saying about Vietnam and his role in Vietnam. I am certainly not taking a stand on it."

RFK received excellent reviews from local critics and has been extended three times since it opened in early November. A national tour is now being discussed. Jack Holmes says audience members in Los Angeles, where the play first opened, and in New York, represent a wide spectrum of U.S. society: young, old, conservative, liberal. RFK 's message, he concludes, cut across partisan politics and generations.

"As a playwright, I am creating scenes and fashioning them, but I am not making up the events, " Holmes said. "I am not making up the things that he did. And it is a life that ended at 42. I was always struck by that message that he had, which was just what an individual can accomplish, just looking right out at the audience and saying, 'If you don't speak out, nobody else will,' saying it really is up to each individual person."

Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in June 1968 shortly after delivering a victory speech in the California race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

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