Stepping into Character as RFK

Main Street Theater’s Joel Sandel embraces the role of Robert F. Kennedy.

By Holly Beretto July 15, 2016

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When we spoke four days before Main Street Theater's opening of RFK: A Portrait of Robert F. Kennedy, Joel Sandel was still working on dialect.

“You know, there’s a Boston dialect, but there’s also a Kennedy dialect,” he says. “It’s really its own thing. I know I can’t sustain it for the whole show, but I’m working on how to give it that flavor, and at least get Bobby’s cadence right.”

If that sounds like a deeply personal approach to a part, consider this: Robert Francis Kennedy is one of Sandel’s political heroes. When he first read Jack Holmes’ play a couple of years ago, he knew he wanted to do it. But the timing wasn’t right. Main Street Theater was neck deep in its capital campaign and renovations, so Sandel shelved the script. He was reminded of it after seeing All the Way at the Alley Theatre this season, and took it to Main Street’s artistic director Rebecca Green Udden, who immediately said, “Great. We’re doing it this summer.”

Houston theater-goers might reflect that Sandel’s had a busy summer; RFK comes on the heels of The Divine Sister, where he was in cross dress as a Mother Superior trying to save her community, a 180 degree turn from RFK. Given that level of activity, you might expect Sandel to be a little manic. Instead, he’s sanguine, but he does admit this:

“It’s all been surprisingly emotional,” he says about rehearsing and researching the role. “Bobby spoke so eloquently about civil rights and justice for humanity. Here it is 2016, and so much of what he fought against is still going on. To me, this really feels like that time.”

Robert F. Kennedy, younger brother of President John F. Kennedy and member of the fabled Kennedy clan, is a political hero of Sandel’s, who describes himself as a “devoted liberal.” Like his older brother, Bobby would serve as a senator (and later, his brother’s Attorney General) and mount his own run for the White House. He was assassinated in California on June 5, 1968, hours after winning the California Primary.

“We’ve been speculating in rehearsals about what might have happened if he hadn’t been assassinated,” says Sandel. “He’d have won the presidency, and we’d have been spared Watergate, which I think is really when cynicism of government and politics took hold.”

For Sandel, RFK is personal. In addition to his own liberal politics and Kennedy being his hero, he feels the play tells us something about humanity, as well as Kennedy’s approach to it. He also sees a mirroring of the times we live in, which he thinks will resonate with audiences.

“Bobby really wanted to focus on capturing the youth vote, getting young people’s attention,” says Sandel. “Many people in his campaign thought he should concentrate on older voters, but he really believed that to make change happen, he needed to engage young people. We see a lot of that now.”

The play begins in 1964, but Sandel says it moves back and forth through time, reaching into the '50s and moving forward to Kennedy’s inevitable fate. Sandel calls it fragmented, but he was captivated by Holmes’ ability to not only incorporate Kennedy’s speeches and public persona, but his private personality. He says the show is laced with humor, and while it does have weighty subject matters in it, it’s no dreary history book presentation.

“It’s a good mishmash. And I want to be able to remind people who Bobby was and what he was for.”

 July 17—August 14. From $10. Main Street Theater: Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706.

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