The World Premiere of We declare you a terrorist… Raises Relevant Questions on War

Tim J. Lord’s play at Round House Theatre depicts a fictionalized account of the 2002 Moscow hostage crisis, but echoes the current crisis in Ukraine.

Tim J. Lord

Tim J. Lord, the playwright behind We declare you a terrorist …, now playing at Round House Theatre, could not have anticipated the political context and baggage around the show’s world premiere. It’s a fictionalized account of the 2002 Moscow hostage crisis, during which Chechen terrorists took control of a theater until Russian authorities pumped the space full of gas. The play’s protagonist is from Ukraine, and characters debate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence on the country, halfway through his first official term. The current war in Ukraine adds some sting to the dialogue, but even without the war, this would be a tough political drama that raises important questions about how different people find purpose in violent struggle.

Co-directors Ryan Rilette and Jared Mezzocchi, along with scenic designer Lawrence Moten, start with a deceptively simple space. It is an anonymous room with beaten up furniture—one character describes it as a kind of purgatory. It’s a year after the hostage crisis and the action begins with an interrogation. An FSB officer (Elliott Bales) pulls a black hood off another man (Cody Nickell) with bound wrists, and starts asking questions. Before anyone can speak, sounds of someone being tortured happen offstage.

The FSB officer uses the frightening sounds and disorientation to his advantage: He is off-putting, almost jovial (none of the actors speak in Russian accents, which is the right choice). You may know that the FSB is modern Russia’s successor to the KGB, so this officer is familiar with interrogation tactics. It turns out his prisoner wrote the play that was being performed when hostages were taken, and after surviving, the playwright was caught trying to enter Chechnya. We eventually learn why, but not just through the officer’s questions. In flashbacks to the hostage crisis, the playwright converses with a Russian teenager, Masha (Bekah Zornosa), and Kayira (Ava Eisenson), a Chechen terrorist. Both admonish the playwright and serve as his conscience.

Ava Eisenson (Kayira), Cody Nickell (The Writer), and Bekah Zornosa (Masha) in “We declare you a terrorist...” at Round House Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.
Ava Eisenson (Kayira), Cody Nickell (The Writer), and Bekah Zornosa (Masha) in “We declare you a terrorist…” at Round House Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

The major flourish in We declare you a terrorist involves the nature of the flashbacks. Zornosa and Eisenson do not physically appear on stage. Instead, we see video projections of them on the walls, while Nickell reacts to them in real time. It is an eerie effect, and has a purpose beyond delineating flashbacks from the present. The images of Zornosa and Eisenson are literally larger than life, projected to roughly the size of a movie screen, so their expressive faces only need small changes in order to communicate a great deal. Russian brutality shapes how their characters think, albeit in opposite ways, and the tensest scenes are an extended argument over Kayira’s tactics. She may have a gun and a bomb strapped to her, but the hostage crisis has plenty of downtime, which gives them ample time to pore over the efficacy of terrorism.

If the flashbacks are about the Russian state’s influence over its people, the interrogation scenes are an extension of the government’s will. The dynamics between the playwright and FSB officer are similar to Taking Sides, a 1995 play set in World War II’s aftermath where an American soldier tries to decide whether a German conductor has Nazi sympathies. Both plays conclude that the answers are nowhere near as simple as the interrogator wishes, and the mere act of detaining an artist curdles any possibility that someone such as a conductor or a playwright might remain a friend of the homeland. Bales’ physically commanding performance is all about needling Nickell’s character, and they are effective sparring partners. (Bales flubbed some lines at the production City Paper attended, but he effectively improvised his way through them.) Their dialogue turns into an intellectual battle of wills, another smart choice since onstage depiction of violence and torture would get in the way of Lord’s deeper themes. The officer has his reasons for joining the FSB, just like Masha and Kayira, to the point that every character, including the playwright, become an avatar for one possible path toward unhappiness and despair under the Putin regime.

Lord declines to name Nickell’s playwright character, although a simple Wikipedia search reveals him to be Georgi Vasilyev. By keeping his name semi-anonymous, Lord can take more liberties with the character’s choices and conduct. Absent any strong connection to Vasilyev, Nickell has the freedom to tackle a tricky role, one where the playwright empathizes with three people who hate him for wildly different reasons. His use of understatement is consistently effective, conveying subtle shifts between terror and curiosity, and more importantly, it is dramatically plausible that the other three characters feel comfortable confiding in him. The playwright’s tools are modest: he knows how to ask questions, and has a sense of humor. He may be lucky insofar that Masha and Kayira have opinions about art, although the play also suggests these shared interests, not politics, are where common ground can exist.

Because of its setting and the play is a world premiere, I was curious how We declare you a terrorist… would involve the audience. In an earlier draft, perhaps Lord imagined some kind of interactive theater, with a terrorist character shouting directly at the audience. That tactic would be immediately shocking, then lose its power. Ultimately, Lord does make use of a theater full of attentive listeners. At a crucial moment, the lights turn up and Nickell addresses the audience, his voice full of solemnity and regret. The implication is that we are the dead from the 2002 crisis, a powerful gambit that breaks down several barriers. If the original intent was to disabuse us from thinking about terrorism and totalitarianism in abstract terms, then a secondary, more immediate effect is how this play changes the way we think about the war in Ukraine—and why both sides fight.

We declare you a terrorist…, by Tim J. Lord and co-directed by Ryan Rilette and Jared Mezzocchi, runs at Round House Theatre until May 8. 

Article by Alan Zilberman for the Washington City Paper here.

Intense “We declare you a terrorist…” by Tim J. Lord, Detonates and Resonates at Round House

Tim J. Lord's brilliantly written play references a tragic event during Russia's war on Chechnya when theatergoers in Moscow were held hostage.

When does taking violent action in response to bloody tyranny become “terrorism,” and who gets to decide? Tim J. Lord’s “We declare you a terrorist…” takes up those questions in the context of a tragic incident during Russia’s war on Chechnya. In the play, the questions aren’t abstract: they are intensely personal. The resonance of the play with the current war in Ukraine is equally intense.

From 1994 to 2009, Russia brought its full military might to bear on Chechnya, located in the Caucasus region. Russian artillery and bombs flattened the capital city of Grozny. Pictures of Grozny from January 1995 look like pictures of Mariupol today. Many thousands of civilians were killed or fled as refugees.

In the midst of this, the Dubrovka theater in Moscow presented Nord-Ost, a hit Les Mis-scale patriotic musical. In October 2002, 40 to 50 Chechens, armed with guns and bombs, seeking to force Russian troops to leave Chechnya, seized control of the theater during a performance, taking more than 800 actors, crew, and audience members hostage.

After more than two days, Russian forces gassed the theater with a fentanyl-derived compound that rendered most people unconscious. The security forces then shot the Chechens dead. An unplanned, chaotic evacuation followed. Approximately 175 hostages died, collateral damage from the effects of the gas and the botched evacuation.

The play begins a year later in a dingy interrogation room, well-realized in Lawrence E. Moten III’s scenic design. An FSB officer is questioning The Writer (Cody Nickell), a fictionalized version of Nord-Ost’s co-writer and producer, Ukrainian-born Georgi Vasilyev. In Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design, the offstage screams of a prisoner being tortured add to the ominous atmosphere; the room lights flicker as electrodes are applied. The Writer was caught trying to sneak into Chechnya. Why? Was he trying to provide material aid to terrorists?

Cody Nickell (The Writer) and Elliott Bales (The FSB Officer) in “We declare you a terrorist….” Photo by Margot Schulman Photography

The Writer was in the theater during the siege, to which the play frequently flashes back. At the core of the play are the relationships he develops there with two young women, Masha (Bekah Zornosa), a teenager who had attended the show with her parents, and Kayira (Ava Eisenson), one of the Chechens. Neither likes the musical (one of the several points of humor in this otherwise deeply serious play). Both are highly intelligent and keen observers of detail. Masha notes subtleties of character in the eyes of The Writer and Kayria, for example.

In Zornoso’s characterization, Masha’s emotions range from teen snark to fear to anger at the Chechens: what has she done to deserve being held hostage and likely killed? She is someone who is easy for The Writer to want to protect and comfort, however helplessly, in a situation in which her fate is in the hands of the Chechens.

Cody Nickell (The Writer) and Bekah Zornosa (Masha) in “We declare you a terrorist….” Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

Kayira is single-mindedly prepared to kill and die for her people. The Russians killed her husband and other family members. She will not see her young son again. She once had other dreams. Now she has nothing more to lose and looks forward to paradise as a martyr. The Writer talks with her, trying slowly to gain her trust, in the process finding empathy for the path she has chosen and, in turn, earning her respect for admitting that, even knowing what was happening to Chechens, he would have done nothing.

The Writer’s other relationship is with The FSB Officer (Elliott Bales). A large, imposing middle-aged man, the officer is by turns cheerful, manipulative, intimidating, and brutal. He radiates unchecked power. He is above all a nationalist, longing for Soviet days when Russia itself, Ukraine, and Belarus were part of a unified great Russian nation. He sees himself justly fighting against the evil, scarcely human terrorists who attacked his country. He will do what he has to do to defeat them. In this, he is kin to Americans who employed “enhanced interrogation” techniques at Abu Ghraib or various “black sites” in the U.S. “war on terror.”

One of Lord’s signal successes is that in Kayria and The FSB Officer, he gives us two characters who are easy to condemn as moral monsters — a suicide bomber and a thuggish agent — and shows us their humanity, without implying approval. There are no cardboard villains here.

And what of The Writer himself? He endures a dark night of the soul literally underground, in subway tunnels. He comes to admit to himself, and ultimately even to the officer, that he can no longer simply watch from the safety of the sidelines, that he has responsibility to take some kind of action, even if it is quixotic and perhaps futile.

All four actors are fully, believably grounded in their characters. There’s not a false note to be seen.

Ava Eisenson (Kayira), Cody Nickell (The Writer), Elliott Bales (The FSB Officer), and Bekah Zornosa (Masha) in “We declare you a terrorist….” Photo by Lawrence E. Moten III.

In the outstanding, quite dazzling, technical achievement of the production, directors Ryan Rilette and Jared Mezzocchi make ingenious use of projections for the theater scenes. Nickell remains on stage, his image projected onto the set via live video. Meanwhile, Zornosa and Eisenson are offstage, their video images projected onto the set as they converse with Nickell.

This device creates clear distinctions between interrogation scenes and theater scenes and ensures rapid transitions, with Nickell never having to leave his position. During the transitions, a projected visual and sound cacophony conveys The Writer’s mind and emotions, affected as they are by a combination of anxiety, survivor guilt, and PTSD. The larger-than-life projected images loom over The Writer, as the events of the hostage crisis loom over his interrogation and his decisions about his future course.

It is impossible to see this play (developed beginning in 2009) and not think of today’s news from Ukraine. Sanctions and military aid notwithstanding, how do we deal with the feelings of futility created by watching the pictures from Bucha or of the mass flight of refugees? Like The Writer, we may ask what we can do. The play is brilliantly written and performed, well worth seeing, but like current reality, provides no ready answers.

Show Information:

“We declare you a terrorist…” plays through May 8, 2022, at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda MD, in rep with It’s not a trip it’s a journey as part of the National Capital New Play Festival.Consult the Round House website for performance dates as well as for tickets ($55–$68).

The program book for “We declare you a terrorist…” is online here. Buy Tickets.

Running Time: One hour 45 minutes, with no intermission.

The full article by Bob Ashby for the DC Metro can be found here.

‘Settlements’ by Seth Rozin, play at InterAct: Smart intellectual debate and economical storytelling

Under David Winitsky’s direction, a stellar five-person cast radiates political and artistic passion and mostly transcends stereotypes.

SETTLEMENTS at InterAct Theatre Company, with (from left) Steven Rishard, and Becca Khalil.
SETTLEMENTS at InterAct Theatre Company, with (from left) Steven Rishard, and Becca Khalil.Seth Rozin

Seth Rozin’s Settlements deliberately offers what the controversial play powering its plot does not: the balanced expression of multiple viewpoints.

Inspired by real-life events, Rozin’s world-premiere drama at his InterAct Theatre Company fuses smart intellectual debate with economical storytelling. Its weaknesses are its dearth of action and an occasionally distracting detour through the thickets of gender identification. Under David Winitsky’s direction, a stellar five-person cast radiates political and artistic passion and mostly transcends stereotypes.

Rozin, InterAct’s cofounder and producing artistic director, favors punning titles. His 2018 play, Human Rites, which drew on anthropological research into the practice of female circumcision, explored cultural differences and human rights. Settlements references the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank by Israel. But its larger subject is the desirability of overcoming polarization and forging compromise.

The characters in Settlements, especially a half-Jordanian, half-Jewish playwright and a wealthy donor with strong ties to Israel, aren’t exactly at home in that territory.

SETTLEMENTS at InterAct Theatre Company, with (from left) Becca Khalil, Steven Rishard, and Mitch Greenberg.
SETTLEMENTS at InterAct Theatre Company, with (from left) Becca Khalil, Steven Rishard, and Mitch Greenberg.Seth Rozin

Rozin’s play owes its premise to a 2013 imbroglio involving the D.C. Jewish Community Center and its well-regarded Theater J. The center fired Ari Roth, the theater’s longtime artistic director, after years of contention over programming sympathetic to Palestinians and critical of Israel.

The center has commissioned a work by a young playwright, Yasmine (Becca Khalil), betting that the writer’s mixed heritage will produce a balanced examination of Middle Eastern issues. It turns out to be a bad bet.

Yasmine identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronoun “they,” which Noah readily adopts and other characters reject or stumble over. The stumbles take up too much stage time. But Yasmine’s identity also bears thematic weight, symbolizing the need to reject binary ideologies and find common ground. Yasmine, ironically, won’t be the one to do it. Impelled by a West Bank encounter to chronicle the impact of violence on a Palestinian family, she has lost interest in portraying Israeli characters or perspectives.

Noah tries, gently, to coax Yasmine into more complexity, while fending off interference from the center and its board. In Rishard’s prickly, charismatic portrayal, he is not anyone’s notion of an ideal employee, but his advocacy of artistic independence seems admirable. His most dedicated antagonist is Cesar, a retired ophthalmologist, philanthropist, and son of a Holocaust survivor whose largesse is jeopardized by Yasmine’s intransigence. Mitch Greenberg is excellent in the role, which Rozin renders with unexpected sympathy.

Trying to find the elusive middle ground are Judith and the center’s board president, Marion (Emily Zacharias), elegantly attired by costume designer Natalia de la Torre.

Along with a few pieces of furniture, Marie Laster’s scenic design includes off-white and blue sliding panels, suggesting both boundary walls and Israel’s national colors, and a silhouetted cityscape evoking the West Bank. The set strikes a nice balance — that word again — between realism and the symbolic world of the imagination.

Settlements

Presented by InterAct Theatre Company at the Proscenium Theatre at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks St., through April 24. Vaccination proof and masks required. Tickets: $35. Information: 215-568-8079 or www.interacttheatre.org.Published April 11, 2022

Review by Julia M. Klein for the Philadelphia Inquirer

Review of VIETGONE by Jeffrey Lo at the City Lights Theatre Company

Amanda Le Nguyen and Jomar Tagatac
Photo by Christian Pizzirani

On the surface a story detailing the journey of some Vietnamese immigrants as they escape the fall of Saigon in 1975 and land in a refugee camp in Arkansas, Vietgone is actually an irreverent, topsy-turvy, wild ride of a moving and engaging love story–in this case, a story based on how the playwright’s parents actually met. But as their story is told, Qui Nguyen keeps us guessing if Vietgone, which premiered in 2015, is also a romantic comedy, a sex-and-expletive-packed action adventure, a rap-and-rock-infused musical, a parody about recently arrived immigrants’ views of America, a tale of stark realism, or one closer to fantasy. The answer is yes to all.

City Lights Theater Company has assembled an absolutely sizzling, crackerjack cast of five under the incredibly imaginative and insightful direction of talented and wildly popular director (and playwright) Jeffrey Lo to stage a not-to-be-missed Vietgone. From the opening greetings to the audience of “What’s up, bitches? … Yo, there’s a whole lot of white people up there” to the final moments when holding back tears is almost impossible for cast or audience, Vietgone is a nonstop series of scenes that elicit a lot of laughter, many memories (especially for those of us in the baby boomer generation), and much re-thinking and re-evaluation about a war that most in the audience probably entered the theater with a low regard for and a desire to forget.

The plot of the story, if it were told in a normal timeline sequence, begins with two people who are among the last to escape Vietnam–each leaving behind someone who loves him or her. Quang, an eight-year South Vietnamese veteran of the war, reluctantly leaves a wife and two young kids he barely knows, while Tong escapes both the Viet Cong and a boyfriend who desperately wants to marry her but whom she only mildly likes. Quang and Tong meet in a refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and have a hot time in bed together (many times), with seemingly no strings attached. Quang then convinces his best friend and fellow escapee Nhan to make what will be a life-changing trip across America on a motorcycle to head back to a family Quang isn’t sure are still alive in a country he has no clue if he can actually get back into safely.

It is that journey that begins the play, with bits of the story’s Vietnam and Arkansas bookends spliced in along the way in no particular order. Since we are warned before the play begins not to “repeat/retweet anything about my parents” in this “boy-meets-girl love story” by someone who identifies himself as The Playwright, we start to expect the story’s romantic, happy ending early on. However, it cannot be predicted how it will be told through Qui Nguyen’s eclectic, electrically charged script punctuated by the original rap songs of Shane Rettig. Our ride will be as wild as that of Quang and Nhan as they motor across the country and meet hippies, good ol’ boys, and even Ninja Turtles in exotic places like Amarillo, Oklahoma City, and Albuquerque.

Bay Area favorite Jomar Tagatac returns to a play he performed in at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre and Sacramento’s Capital Stage Company. As City Lights’ Quang, he is nothing short of stellar. His face is often a map of his own journey: the pain of loss of family, home, and country; the shock and anger of landing in a place where he does not want to be; the constant impatience and sheer determination to return at all costs to his family against the odds of doing so all remaining alive. His Quang longs for a home “where we were heroes, where we count for something” and is disgusted by this new country where “we aren’t worth shit.” His anguish is palpable when he moans, “Here I may be living, but I am not really alive.” When he turns to rap to expose his innermost anguish, repeatedly he defiantly chants, “However impossible this is, I’ll make it home.”

But there is one thing that causes Quang to look longingly over his shoulder back toward Arkansas as he heads west toward the California coast and hopefully on to Vietnam. That persistent tug on his heart is Tong, the thirty-year-old immigrant who was supposed to be only a quick, hot fling, but who became a good friend with benefits. And now, on Quang’s journey, his longing eyes say something more.

Vietgone runs through April 24, 2022, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. 2nd Street, San Jose CA. Patrons must show proof of full vaccination and must wear masks at all times inside the theater. For tickets and information, please visit cltc.org.

Read the full review by Eddie Reynolds for Talkin’ Broadway here.

Can We Talk? Why I Put ‘America in One Room’

Lawrence Evans, Alex Pelletier, Linden Tailor, Almeria Campbell, Sheffield Chastain, Lipica Shah, Nicholas Caycedo, and Marina Re in “America in One Room.” (Photo by John Jones)

By Jason Odell Williams for American Theatre

It was the faces that drew me in.

Five-hundred-plus photos splashed across several pages of The New York Times. Young faces. Old ones. All walks of life. From all over America.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of my next play.

The people in those photos had just been part of a radical experiment. Over 500 registered voters were invited to a Texas resort in late September 2019 to take part in a three-day conference to discuss some of America’s most pressing political issues: healthcare, immigration, the economy.

And while a play about strangers discussing politics might not seem like the obvious choice, I kept coming back to those faces. Who were these people? Why did they take time out of their lives to do this? Did they think it would make a difference in the world? Did it make a difference?

They called the event “America in One Room.” And for months that section of the newspaper sat on my desk, getting a little dusty, a little yellow with time. I was busy writing and producing for television, but still, I kept thinking that might have found my next play. The idea stuck with me. I’d think about it while walking the dog or running in Central Park. Maybe there’s something there? Eh, I’ll get to it eventually.

Before I knew it, five months had passed, and it was March 2020. Everything was shut down, and I was suddenly out of a job. Several planned productions of my plays were cancelled across the country. So writing a new one seemed pointless. But then I remembered a quote attributed to Carrie Fisher, one of my writing heroes: “Take your broken heart…make it into art.”

Yeah. I’ll definitely do that, Carrie—right after this next episode of Bojack Horseman.

Then came a phone call out of the blue. A life raft, really. Catherine Randazzo, Florida Studio Theatre’s literary manager, said that while live productions were shut down, they were going to use the time to develop new work, commissioning 20-30 plays from writers around the country. Did I have any ideas?

I dusted off that newspaper article and pitched on the fly. She loved it. A week later, I had been commissioned to write America in One Room. Richard Hopkins, FST’s producing artistic director, even told everyone in this new “Playwrights Project” not to self-edit or write more traditionally “producible” plays with smaller casts and production budgets. Instead, Richard said something not many theatre producers ever tell writers: He encouraged us to think big—to “blue sky it,” as they say. Write the biggest, boldest, most audacious thing we can think of, and they would figure out how to make it work. There were no promises for a production, or even a reading, but that didn’t matter. I had purpose again. A reason to get up and work and create each day.

As I dug into the idea, I researched the real-life event further and even did some internet sleuthing to track down some of the faces from the article. Many were kind enough to return my cold emails, and I spoke on the phone for over an hour each to four people who attended the America in One Room conference. They shared some remarkable insights—like how they nicknamed the event “A1R”—and how most of their breakout session group still stayed in touch via text chain. Two of these former strangers now considered each other close friends—and no, they don’t identify with the same political party.

That was the lightbulb moment and the central dilemma taken up by the play: Could strangers from across the political aisle find common ground, or, more importantly, at least find a way to treat each other with respect and dignity? The answer from the conference seemed to be a resounding “Yes.”

As I started to dig deeper and read more press coverage about the findings from the 2019 convention, it appeared that my hunch was right. Across the board, participants felt less animosity toward their fellow Americans and more connected to one another on a human level. They felt more hope for our country after the conference. Opinions shifted, eyes were opened, and a middle ground was found. Yet if you turn on cable news, that idea seems more far-fetched than colonizing Mars.

So maybe a play inspired by (and very loosely based on) this event could tackle the thorny questions about who we are as a nation and help show that, as cheesy as it sounds, there’s more that unites us than divides us, and there’s still good reason to have hope.

Jason Odell Williams and Linden Tailor working on a reading of “America in One Room.” (Photo by John Jones)

It took dozens of drafts—some really awful, terrible drafts. The cast size was 5, then 10, then 9. There was audience participation in the play, then none, then just a little bit. Was there too much talk about politics in the play? Not enough? How faithful to the real-life event did we need to be? (As it turns out, not very!)

The 2019 event provided a framework for balanced, respectful, and informed deliberations guided by a neutral moderator that purposely omitted hyper-partisan talking points. But that doesn’t make for great drama, so I needed to turn up the volume on the tensions and exaggerate some of the conflict that the original event was expressly designed to mitigate.

There were Zoom readings. So many Zoom readings. With a large cast and lots of overlapping dialogue, it was a major challenge to figure out what was working and what was not. Would it be better when we did it in person? Or was that section just a case of sloppy writing? I thought maybe I’d never find out.

In July came another amazing phone call from Catherine at FST. The theatre had been cleared to do in-person workshops and America in One Room was going to be one of them!

Fully vaccinated, my wife and I flew (for the first time in 18 months) to Sarasota. It was a whirlwind rehearsal process. We only had five days from the first read-through to the staged reading for the public. The cast was a mix of locals and out-of-towners. Some had been in the Zoom readings. Some were reading the play for the first time.

Script changes were made throughout the week, including a significant cut just a few hours before the public reading. When I finally sat in the packed house of about 150 patrons, all of us wearing masks, there was a buzz in the air. This was the first live performance I’d seen in nearly two years. Same for most of the folks around me. It was thrilling just being in a theatre again.

Oh yeah, and the play was a hit: laughs, tears, audience members talking back to the actors, chiming in, loving every minute. It was a real highlight of my theatrical life. I didn’t think it could get any better.

Nicholas Caycedo, Lipica Shah, Almeria Campbell, and Sheffield Chastain in “America in One Room.” (Photo by John Jones)

Then, four days later, yet another lovely phone call came from Catherine. Florida Studio Theatre had decided to present the full world-premiere production of America in One Room in their upcoming mainstage season. The play would run for 12 weeks. Nine actors, nine understudies. During COVID! No easy feat.

There were challenges and logistical hurdles, not to mention trying to get the script right. But somehow, with the unwavering support of FST, we pulled it off. Opening night was a hit. The audience responses were memorable. One patron named Valerie told me, “I wish everyone could see and think about this play,” and another named Kim called the show “excellent and thought-provoking.”

Another bit of feedback was especially meaningful. I heard from Valentin Bolotnyy, a fellow from Stanford’s Hoover Institute, who was one of the research collaborators behind the real America in One Room project, who had flown across the country to see the production. He wrote to me, “You captured the essence of the experiment really well; when we create the space and time to listen and actually get to know each other, to understand that each individual is not a stereotype but a complex and nuanced human being, to let our humanity shine through, better understanding, hope, and healing are possible. The play is a gift to America—it gets audiences thinking and reflecting on their own lives in ways that are crucial if we are to heal our social fabric.”

No spoilers here, but the play ends with a question for the onstage participants and the audience about whether they have hope for this country. Two years ago, I would have said, no way. But as corny as it sounds, after spending countless hours with this play and seeing how the real A1R participants learned to listen and respect each other’s opinions, I do have hope for this country after all.

As divided factions, we’re pretty stubborn. But as individuals, we’re open-minded, respectful, and genuinely decent. All it takes, it seems, is a little less time spent on social media or cable news, and a little more time talking and listening to people we may not agree with politically or socially.

In March 2020, if you would have told me that a play I hadn’t written yet would be playing to packed houses less than two years later while a pandemic was still going on, I’d have thought, “Everything you just said is crazy!” But that’s what happened. And it’s all thanks to a single New York Times article, the real-life America in One Room event, and a glorious phone call from Florida Studio Theatre.

And, of course, those faces. The faces of America.

Jason Odell Williams is a playwright and television producer. He lives in New York City with his wife and daughter.