You might think you know a lot about President Teddy Roosevelt. Perhaps you recognize him as one of America’s greatest presidents, for his likeness appears on Mount Rushmore. Maybe you admire the late great Robin Williams’s portrayal of the man in the “Night at the Museum” film trilogy. But you might not have been aware that Teddy hated his iconic nickname. In his solo show, “Roosevelt: Charge the Bear,” Phil Johnson, who appeared on Broadway as Montparnasse during the original run of “Les Misérables,” brings new life to our nation’s twenty‑sixth president. We meet Mr. Johnson’s President Roosevelt during one of the most trying moments of his early presidency: the eastern Pennsylvania coal strike of 1902, during which the United Mine Workers of America fought for better pay, shorter hours, and the simple recognition of their union. We are then taken back and forth in time, and shown how Roosevelt achieved the presidency, which he never intended to pursue ‑ he considered giving up politics after his mother and first wife died within twenty‑four hours during his tenure as a member of the New York State Assembly. As Vice President, Roosevelt was unwillingly thrust into the highest office of the land after President William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901. Roosevelt was not particularly liked by the Washington elite, and he experienced considerable pushback in whatever he tried to do, as Mr. Johnson’s portrayal tells. “Roosevelt: Charge the Bear” is, above all, an exploration of the exorbitant social divide that plagued America at the turn of the twentieth century, and which, of course, persists today. Even though Theodore Roosevelt was born‑and lived his entire life‑among the New York elite (he was brought into this world a mere two and a half blocks from where the Flatiron Building now stands), social inequality became a constant theme in his life. It somehow kept finding its way to him, permeating his world. We learn that Roosevelt’s father, Theodore Sr., paid someone to fight for him in the Civil War, a decision he regretted forever. We learn that the Roosevelts tried to make life easier for disabled children by making their braces less cumbersome to wear ‑ this cause was near and dear to Roosevelt’s heart, since his sister Bamie suffered a spinal ailment that left her partially paralyzed. And Roosevelt wanted to do all that he could to end the strike on a positive note for all parties involved, including himself. Mr. Johnson’s Roosevelt takes the time to read us letters he received from Pennsylvanians involved in the coal‑mining industry. Among them were ailing children who worked in the mines.
Mr. Johnson is unflaggingly presidential in his embodiment of Theodore Roosevelt. Although his show gives us a look into the workings of Roosevelt’s inner mind, he presents him with the confidence and showmanship reflective of the highest position in our land (and arguably, the world). Even in his most tender, unsure moments, Mr. Johnson carries himself with such honor, intensity, and sympathy that it makes one wonder whether the president ever broke down outwardly, or whether only those closest to him could sense his frustration and anguish.
“Roosevelt: Charge the Bear” is a unique look at a man who was instrumental in shaping modern American history. It deals with a tribulation that is often pushed aside in history class in favor of more monumental events from Roosevelt’s presidency. If you’re not a history buff, Mr. Johnson’s show probably isn’t for you, but he consistently expresses himself with such unflagging and unconditional energy and stage presence that just watching him perform alone onstage for an hour is both a treat and a master class in stamina and character development.
And in case you’re wondering: no, this Roosevelt did not speak softly, and he most certainly did not carry a big stick.
“Roosevelt: Charge the Bear” Performed by Phil Johnson Written by Marni Friedman and Phil Johnson October 3, at 9 PM 2019 United Solo Festival Theatre Row 410 West 42nd Street New York City
MIKEY MILLER is an actor, writer, and tutor based in Jersey City, NJ. He received his BA in English with a minor in theatre arts from the University of Pennsylvania in 2018. Since then, Mikey has acted in off-Broadway and regional productions and worked as a freelance writer for publications such as StageAgent and ShowTickets.