It is a privilege to be viewing live performances in the time of COVID, or even to just be acting in a show in the first place. As restrictions have put a pause on the arts, a few lucky venues have been granted the opportunity to continue their craft. The Music Theatre of Connecticut is only one of three places granted the ability to still produce shows. Through the pandemic, they have been able to show RFK, a one-person show about the life of Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy talks about his life growing up, what it means to be a Kennedy, the effects of his brother’s death, the overall meaning of the United States government, and what our country should represent. For a time when political division is so rife in our country, this show is shining a light into a future sense of unity that all viewers can hope for.
A house that would normally seat 110 now reserves 53 in-person spots, and the other half can be reserved online. THe Music Theatre of Connecticut also opts to forgo a paper playbill; instead, a QR code can be scanned and all information can be found on one’s phone. The arrival of the audience is staggered, as is the seating. This is the new world of live performance.
“I’ll need you all to be extra loud for our online audience tonight. Say hello!” The main usher gestures to the back of the blackbox. We all wave and cheer. It’s exciting to have this very special privilege to view the stage live.
The black platform has an extremely minimalistic set. There are three clear settings of which Kennedy will find himself: a wooden desk on the right, mimicking an office; a microphone placed in the center that will be used for speeches; and a couch on the left, where Kennedy will talk about his personal life. The walls are plastered with newspaper clippings detailing the events of the time. Some tell stories of civil rights. Others describe the Kennedy family, accompanied with pictures of them all. The entirety of the stage is adorned in blue light, only to be washed away when a white spotlight hits the stage.
Chris Manuel is the sole star of the show. He has an uncanny resemblance to the late Robert Kennedy; the casting director clearly chose an actor who looked the part. The only question is: could he not only act it, but sound like Bobby too?
It is important to first note the talent of Manuel. RFK is not a typical one-person show; it goes on for nearly two hours with an intermission in between rather than only 90 uninterrupted minutes. Throughout this long period of time, Manuel constantly spews the inner monologue of Kennedy following the assassination of his brother. Manuel had the difficult task of memorizing two hours worth of content as well as nailing a 1970s Massachusettes accent. It was not perfect, but accurate enough, so it wasn’t a cause for distraction. He did not seem to trip up once during his performance, and if he did, it wasn’t noticeable.
Most of the show was a typical historical reflection. Manuel does his best to become an impassioned Kennedy, but the script just feels like it is reciting what the audience already knows.
That is, until he begins to reflect on Kennedy’s personal role in the government and what could have been changed. He contemplates the meaning of America during the Vietnam war. Are we a country seeking bloodthirsty revenge? No, he realizes. We are a country filled with compassion, a people who care for their neighbors and want to see even their enemies have good lives. Our young people help to instill this image. We are filled driven by hope for a brighter tomorrow. We actively seek betterment for our future. This speech would make any college student well with tears, especially when considering that RFK performed in the weeks preceding the election. At a time where the United States felt so divided, RFK reminded the audience what it truly means to be an American. Though Robert Kennedy may have been taken too soon, there are plenty other people today that can carry on his personal image of what it means to be great. There is an entire generation of young people as passionate as he was. And hopefully, they will make even more of an impact than Robert Kennedy did.