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.

ANTONIO’S SONG/I WAS DREAMING OF A SON is a Powerful Poetry at the MILWAUKEE REP

BWW Review: ANTONIO'S SONG/I WAS DREAMING OF A SON is Powerful Poetry at the MILWAUKEE REP

The Milwaukee Rep welcomes theater back into the Stiemke Studio with Antonio’s Song/I Was Dreaming of a Son by Dael Orlandersmith and Antonio Edwards Suarez, directed by Mark Clements. The Rep describes the play as a “poetic journey of a dancer/artist/father questioning the balance of his passions — art, culture, family.”

This one-man work of art follows Antonio (played by Suarez) from the streets of Brooklyn to Russian ballet studios to fatherhood as he wrestles with stereotypes of ethnicity and gender, all while aching just to be his singular self. This is a memoir play, meaning it comes from Suarez’s lived experiences. The stories he tells are his own. But together with Orlandersmith, whose work is beloved and renowned for its poetry, these stories weave with music and movement for a truly artful, rhythmic experience.

Alexandra Beller

In fact, the play is so dependent on movement that one almost wonders why it isn’t entitled Antonio’s Dance. Movement Director Alexandra Beller has been collaborating with Orlandersmith and Suarez for years on this project, for they always knew their play was meant to be as much a dance as anything. Per the Rep’s Audience Guide, Beller says: “Antonio did a lot of improvising while speaking the text and I cataloged what naturally came from his body. Then I would hone it and crystallize it and teach it back to him… But it had all been generated from his body through the text, and that seemed really magical to both of us.”

Suarez’s performance is indeed a magical one. His movements speak loudly, softly, and never stutter. He delivers poetry with strength and grace. Through the telling of his crisis of identity, Suarez takes on multiple roles, from his Bushwick bros to his own mother to himself as a child. This is, in the end, an exploration of the multitudes within us, and Suarez captures and beautifully exposes those that reside within him. He’s captivating.

The performance is backed by dynamic projection design by Jared Mezzocchi. The set is simple, with video and music lending the location and mood, with help from Lighting Designer John Ambrosone and Sound Designer Andre J. Pluess. This stripped-back scenery and the projections that support it keep the focus on Suarez and his storytelling.

If you’re wondering if this play is for you, consider this: There’s a moment in Antonio’s Song that speaks in praise of being a “citizen of the world.” That is who this play is for. This work transcends any one descriptor — it’s not just about race, gender, stereotypes, or parenthood. If you are devoted to your fellow humans, to their stories, their struggles, their triumphs, and to exploring just how much we have in common as citizens of the world, then Antonio’s Song is absolutely for you.

Antonio’s Song/I Was Dreaming of a Son is on stage now at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater through March 6, 2022.

Article by Kelsey Lawler for Broadway World.

Tyrone Robinson’s ‘This Bitter Earth:’ A moving tragedy about love and politics

InterAct’s latest production presents an interracial gay relationship through the scrim of memory.

This Bitter Earth at InterAct Theatre Company, with (from left to right) David Bazemore, Gabriel Elmore.
This Bitter Earth at InterAct Theatre Company, with (from left to right) David Bazemore, Gabriel Elmore.

In This Bitter Earth, a tender tragedy about the intersection of the personal and the political, the playwright Harrison David Rivers takes on two challenges: the depiction of interracial gay love and a restlessly nonlinear narrative.

The play, whose title is taken from a bluesy 1960 love song popularized by Dinah Washington, involves an attraction — really a collision — between two apparent opposites. Jesse (David Bazemore) is an earnest Black playwright, not unaware of race or history, but determined to focus on his art. His white boyfriend Neil (newcomer Gabriel W. Elmore, in an immensely likable performance) is both a child of wealth and privilege and a Black Lives Matter activist. Conflict, as we can imagine, ensues.

This Bitter Earth at InterAct Theatre Company, with (from left to right) David Bazemore, Gabriel Elmore.
This Bitter Earth at InterAct Theatre Company, with (from left to right) David Bazemore, Gabriel Elmore.

InterAct Theatre Company’s satisfying production — its second live staging under pandemic protocols — is directed with care and precision by Tyrone L. Robinson, with an emphasis on the easy, often scintillating chemistry between the two politically mismatched men.

In about 85 intermission-less minutes, the action hopscotches around the period between March 2012 and December 2015, and between St. Paul, Minn., (where Rivers himself lives) and various New York City locations.Advertisement

Both the burgeoning protest movement sparked by police (and other) killings of Black men and women — years before George Floyd’s murder made the world take note — and the growing mainstream acceptance of gay relationships provide the play’s charged backdrop. References to gay Black poet Essex Hemphill, a favorite of both characters, tie the two themes together.

InterAct producing artistic director Seth Rozin has described This Bitter Earth as unspooling “through the jumbled lens of memory.” That idea helps. So, too, do the projections of dates and locations, which orient (and occasionally disorient) us. Still, the play’s complex structure, with its repeated evocations of a single cataclysmic event, seems at least as much a demonstration of Rivers’ virtuosity as a narrative necessity.

On Colin McIlvaine’s set, an apartment bisected by a sidewalk and bathed in Shannon Zura’s purple lighting, Jesse frames the action with a monologue about his problems with balance. The language is poetic, and the malady, though real, is also symbolically suggestive — of the relationship and perhaps the society that complicates it.

The pairing between the lovers, who meet at a New York City rally in which Neil has taken a leading role, is a canvas on which Rivers dissects the pressures on high-achieving Black men. Bazemore’s emotionally reserved, slyly witty Jesse prefers to devote his talents and energy to the theater. But his chosen life with Neil connects him, however reluctantly, to the politics of the day, even if he leaves the marching to his boyfriend.

At times, the two traffic in the expected: Jesse derides Neil for his “white guilt,” and Neil criticizes Jesse for his apathy. When Neil points out that they’re living in a world that still can’t entirely accept that “Black Lives Matter,” it is Jesse who retorts: “All lives matter.”

But Jesse can’t remain permanently on the sidelines (or can he?). And surely mutual desire can’t forever fend off the varied forces threatening to tear the couple apart. This Bitter Earth is an elegy — a deeply moving one — to the relationship, and a dirge about what happens next.

“This Bitter Earth,” presented by InterAct Theatre Company at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St., through Feb. 20. Masks and vaccine proof required. Seating is distanced. Tickets: $35 Information: www.interacttheatre.org or 215-568-8079.

Article by Julia M. Klein for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Psalmayene 24’s beautiful ‘Dear Mapel’ at Mosaic contains worlds of feeling

In his willingness to be vulnerable there is strength, and in his multifaceted storytelling, each and every emotion strikes a chord.

Psalmayene 24 in ‘Dear Mapel.’ Photo by Chris Banks.

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then a single song contains worlds. Psalmayene 24’s astonishing Dear Mapel feels just like that. Psalmayene 24 plays himself as he relays his coming of age story, traveling through worlds of feeling, worlds in words, and worlds he’s lived: Park Slope, Howard University, a woman’s basement bedroom, a house in Queens in two different decades. It contains worlds of Blackness, masculinity, childhood, adolescence, sexuality. Absence, presence, change, and movement. In truth, we only get to see a sliver of Psalm’s world, but it’s a privilege that he’s decided to share with us.

Dear Mapel is structured as a series of letters to Psalm’s absent father, Mapel. It is inherently musical, as the dialogue is poetry, often set to the percussive rhythms of JabariDC (musician and various roles). But the form itself also feels like an album, or even one long song. Each story, each snapshot of life that Psalm shares builds on the next with interludes and reprises. Recurring themes are reflected in his words, or the lighting, or the musical pattern of JabariDC’s drums. It creates a picture that’s inseparable from the content, which itself is so interwoven and attached to its musical form, to the drums of West Africa, to hip hop. This musical, song-like form evokes, honestly and authentically, the abstract qualities shared by both dreams and memories. The structure of the show brings us into a world that is grounded equally in the reality of past experiences and dreams of connection, of closure.  

JabariDC and Psalmayene 24 in ‘Dear Mapel.’ Photo by Chris Banks.

The technical elements are instruments providing the backing track for the song-like qualities evoked by Dear Mapel. They feel familiar, even recognizable, yet create something slightly different each time they work together. Alberto Segarra’s beautiful lighting makes big changes subtly, fading in and out, helping the audience to recollect earlier moments in the show. Sound design (Nick “tha 1da” Hernandez) perfectly captures different eras of life, emphasizing new scenes, and sometimes a different Psalm, in each cue. There are projections (Kelly Colburn) that I did not have the privilege to see incorporated, due to some technical difficulties. Although the show did not feel empty without them, I do wish I could have seen the work that went in, and the sensory value they add. Finally, JabariDC brings humor and ease to the show, always the final piece of the puzzle that allows a word, emotion, or thought to rise to its fullest potential. His presence is versatile as he expertly punctuates with sadness, wisdom, laughter, and, most of all, percussion.

Psalmayene 24 leads this epic of a two-man production, encompassing actor, writer, visionary, dancer, and singer. But what is remarkable is that these roles are not used just as individual skillsets. Working together with Natsu Onoda Power (director and production designer), Psalm brings a storytelling through-line to each role, so that they weave together to create a basket that gently holds his experience, which he then holds up and generously offers to the audience. There is so much strength in this willingness to be vulnerable, and it helps each and every emotion Psalm conveys to strike a chord. The humor is real — vulnerable. The sadness, wistfulness, feeling of grieving things you’re not even sure of — vulnerable. Firsts, failures, tries — vulnerable. And that vulnerability creates a song of masculinity, Jamaicanness, Blackness, artistry, generational trauma, grief, honest connection, joy — all inseparable from one another. 

Psalmayene 24 in ‘Dear Mapel.’ Photo by Chris Banks.

It is through this lens of abundance that I see the remarkable song that is Dear Mapel. The play itself holds as many parts, as many stories, as Psalm does himself. It is grounded in contradictory ideas of presence and absence, as it is an act of unconditional love toward the missing Mapel, but an act of unconditional self-love as well. It is about community and individualism because it is Psalm’s self-expression, but it includes everyone in the room. It is a beautiful, multifaceted story of how to create closure, or even oneself, in the face of unaccepting circumstances and hegemonic white American forces. It is an individual story of creation, but Psalm weaves it into the lives of countless others, so that Dear Mapel becomes a personal anthem that is remembered and passed on. A legacy born out of absence, with a name it gave itself, ready to be sung again and again.  

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Dear Mapel — written and performed by Psalmayene 24, directed by Natsu Onoda Power, with percussion by JabariDC — runs in-person to February 13, 2022, presented by Mosaic Theater Company at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, H Street NE, Washington DC. Tickets for general admission are $50 each and can be purchased online or by calling 202-738-9491. Open-captioned performances are February 5 at 8 PM, February 10 at 11 AM, and February 10 at 8 PM (includes ASL postshow).

Dear Mapel also streams February 14 to 27, 2022. Tickets for the virtual option are $40 for individuals and $70 for groups, available online. Viewers have 72 hours in which to watch the performance. Closed captions are available.

The Dear Mapel program is online here.

Article by Gwyneth Sholar for the DC Metro Theatre Arts available here.