‘The Colored Museum’ gets an impressive revival

Psalmayene 24 directs a new take on George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play at Studio Theatre.

Review by Trey Graham July 9, 2024 for the Washington Post

Ayanna Bria Bakari, top, and, from left, Kelli Blackwell, William Oliver Watkins and Iris Beaumier in Studio Theatre’s production of “The Colored Museum.” (Teresa Castracane)

Before he staged “Angels in America” on Broadway, before he took the helm at the Public Theater in New York, before he moved into filmmaking and brought us “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Rustin,” George C. Wolfe was a wet-behind-the-ears playwright whose experimental off-Broadway musical “Paradise” had just been demolished by the New York Times. What better time for a young Black writer to square his shoulders and take a swing at the titans of 20th-century African American culture?

The room was demonstrably ready when “The Colored Museum” opened at New Jersey’s Crossroads Theatre in 1986. The Times’s Frank Rich saluted the performers’ “stinging parodies,” praising the “pacing and unity” of an evening that’s basically a dozen dark-comedy sketches. The Washington Post’s David Richards hailed the playwright as one with “an antic imagination, a passionate sense of comedy and a welcome willingness to step on everyone’s toes.”

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What pins critics’ ears reliably back about “The Colored Museum” is “The Last Mama-On-the-Couch Play,” an affectionate but withering centerpiece skewering a half-century’s worth of Black theater landmarks: dramas such as “A Raisin in the Sun” and “For Colored Girls” and all-Black musicals like “Cabin in the Sky” and “Purlie.” Whatever the merits of those shows, Wolfe notes acerbically that their authors still traffic in frustrating stereotypes, locking Black characters into old positions and inviting White audiences just far enough in to snack casually on Black trauma before catching a late supper at the oyster bar across the way. Nor do Black actors escape the nip of Wolfe’s teeth: Watch the cast of Psalmayene 24’s handsome new Studio Theatre production scramble for possession of the Oscar statuette that gets passed around, even as Wolfe’s barbs about overacting detonate like tart little truth bombs.

The director, fresh off the Folger Theatre’s richly textured but curiously unmoving refresh of Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” fares far better with “The Colored Museum,” a show similarly episodic in structure but much less dependent on tone. With less of the supernatural to integrate, and without the self-imposed addition of a unifying conceit, he and his cast — Matthew Elijah Webb, Kelli Blackwell, Ayanna Bria Bakari, Iris Beaumier and William Oliver Watkins are the tight ensemble, with drummer Jabari Exum drawing their efforts even more impressively together — can focus on squeezing each sketch for its individual vitality.

From left, Iris Beaumier, Kelli Blackwell and Ayanna Bria Bakari. (Teresa Castracane)

Thus does the evening have the breadth to satisfyingly explore the emotional price paid by a Josephine Baker-style chanteuse (Beaumier) who has sacrificed the simplicities of her Mississippi childhood to transform herself into a global sophisticate, while also reserving just the right sparkle and sass for a sequence in which a woman (Blackwell) getting dressed for a breakup dinner argues with her two unexpectedly sentient wigs — Beaumier and Bakari, one an exuberant Angela Davis-level Afro, the other a silkier Mariah Carey waterfall — over which of them will help her project the right Strong Black Woman vibe for the occasion.

Thus, too, does the production have stylistic room for the bitter honesty of Webb’s vivid “snap queen” Miss Roj, who would just as soon destroy you as let you get under his skin; the haunted and haunting “kindness” of a Vietnam soldier (a superbly contained Watkins) whose ghost goes about quietly killing his platoon in their sleep to spare them the grief and abuse he sees awaiting them back home; and the commandingly elemental innocence of Normal Jean Reynolds (the mesmerizing Bakari), a grubby red-dirt teenager with a deeply eerie monologue about how she came to give birth to an egg.

Famously, Wolfe framed “The Colored Museum” as a string of exhibits exploding the ways Black Americans tell and are told in their own stories. Psalmayene 24 and designer Natsu Onoda Power lean into the notion with a casually environmental approach that, not unlike Rorschach Theatre’s “Human Museum” earlier this season, reframes the Studio lobbies and parts of the Victor Shargai Theatre itself as an exhibition space wherein compact installations invite further reflection on the corresponding scenes — so take time before and after curtain to explore.

From left, William Oliver Watkins, Kelli Blackwell, Ayanna Bria Bakari, Matthew Elijah Webb and Iris Beaumier. (Teresa Castracane)

Even more famously, Wolfe bookends the show’s action with a skit welcoming audiences aboard a slave ship that’s either sailing the Middle Passage or time-warping its way through to the present, or both. Regardless, Power has transformed the theater space into the wood-benched deck of a merchant vessel, aboard which a cheerily hospitable cabin attendant (Bakari) warns patrons that drumming won’t be tolerated and that the Fasten Your Shackles sign must be closely observed. So maybe don’t bring your more easily offended theatergoing buddies.

Do bring a sense of hope, though: Wolfe’s “Museum” invites visitors to consider what kinds of pain are formative and what kinds are just poisonous: what’s key to remember and what’s safe to forget. Once visiting hours are over, Bakari’s travel guide returns, reminding audiences to check the overhead bins for anything we really want to take with us. Anything we choose to leave behind, she promises warmly, gets chucked straight into the trash.

The Colored Museum, through Aug. 11 at Studio Theatre in Washington. About 1 hour 30 minutes without intermission. studiotheatre.org.

Unicorn Theatre announces new artistic director Ernie Nolan

July 1, 2024 Kaylynn Mullins

Ernie Nolan

After an impressive 45-year run, Cynthia Levin is stepping down as Artistic Director at The Unicorn Theatre. The new director, Ernie Nolan, takes the reigns on July 1. Nolan possesses over 20 years of experience within the arts field and brings a passion for storytelling and inclusivity to this position.

Nolan will be coming to Kansas City after being the creative director at Nashville Children’s Theatre, where he brought forth an era of diversity that highlighted BIPOC artists more than ever during his leadership. “Like Unicorn, my career has been about developing new stories or remixing familiar stories for contemporary audiences. For me, it’s about creating mirrors and windows–opportunities where audiences either see themselves on stage or experience something they never knew existed. I can’t wait to continue that work at my new artistic home,” says Nolan.

Nolan has worked in theatre nationwide, and this won’t be his first time working with Unicorn Theatre. He choreographed one of his favorite projects, La Cage Aux Folles, there in 2007. Nolan says, “For decades, Kansas City artists have created magical, moving work on Unicorn stages. I am honored and excited to now contribute to that.”

Nolan’s impressive background includes winning New City’s Play of The Year Award for his work Love and Human Remains in Chicago and directing Tony-nominated artists. Known for his thought-provoking and bold plays, Nolan is excited to bring his expansive experience to Kansas City, “I can’t wait to join Kansas City’s vibrant and thriving artistic community,” Nolan says.

“Ernie’s artistic vision perfectly aligns with Unicorn Theatre’s, and his leadership style, coupled with his warm personality, will ensure the theatre remains a hub of artistic collaboration and growth in Kansas City,” says  President of the Board of Directors, Sally Everhart.

The Wiz Comes Home to Broadway And it’s Queerer and Funnier than Ever.

For The CUT By Soraya Nadia McDonald, a writer and critic who covers theater and culture.  Photographs by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.

Photo: Elliott Jerome Brown

Almost every Black person of a certain age remembers being terrified by something in The Wiz.

For me, it was the sharp-toothed trashcan monsters of the New York subway that antagonize Dorothy (Diana Ross) and her friends Lion (Ted Ross), Tinman (Nipsey Russell), and Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) in the 1978 movie musical that came out a few years after the show’s Broadway debut. For others, it was the wicked sweatshop mistress Evillene — don’t bring her no bad news — and her menacing band of simian motorcyclists.

For Melody Betts, who plays Evillene and Aunt Em in the Broadway revival opening April 17 at the Marquis Theatre, “the ‘Mean Ole Lion’ track scared me half to death.” Betts began listening to the soundtrack on vinyl when she was just a toddler in the late ’70s. “I would listen to the whole thing and I would sing along. And then when that part came, I would get up and go into the closet and hide because I was scared. And then when that song was over, I would come back out and finish listening to the rest on the soundtrack.”

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Fans who’ve been hoping to revisit the soundtrack have nothing to fear. Nearly 50 years after it first opened on Broadway April 17, 1975, The Wiz, in all its “Black-is-beautiful” glory, has returned. It’s a show that, in a departure from the 1939 film based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, has always been more vibes and music than plot, a space to bask in Black excellence, elegance, fashion, dance, and futurism. The revival is queerer and funnier than ever, with an updated book full of new material by comedian, writer, and first Black woman to host a late night show, Amber Ruffin, and steered by Schele Williams in her Broadway directorial debut (Williams is directing two Broadway shows this season; the other is The Notebook).

While the musical, in all its iterations, holds a venerable place in the hearts and minds of Black families, with love for it passed down like a treasured potato salad recipe, others still chiefly remember The Wiz as a spectacular flop. The 1975 Broadway production, with its all-Black company starring André De Shields in the title role and Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, was seen as a revelation. Even the snappy new title —The Wiz — heralded a brand new day. With a book by William F. Brown, music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls, a thoroughly modern, soul-funkified iteration of the classic story bowed at the Majestic Theatre and took home seven Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical. But the 1978 film adaptation, directed by Sidney Lumet (who had never directed a movie musical before), lost a reported $10.4 million (approximately $48.4 million today). At the time, The Wiz was the most expensive movie musical ever made; a bomb that left a decades long fallout of producer anathema to splashy, big-budget Black projects. The lingering hangover of The Wiz is a disproportionate and chilling skepticism toward funding Black cinematic audacity as a whole. It calls to mind something Judas and the Black Messiah director Shaka King told The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb in 2021: “Even the math in Hollywood is racist.”

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Losing money is a regular occurrence on Broadway, so much so that when a show recoups its investment, there’s a press release trumpeting the occurrence. Yet everyone is aware of the historical stakes accompanying this show, and every Black show that manages to make it to Broadway. Part of the reason this revival is what Wayne Brady — who plays the titular Wiz in the revival — calls “a beautiful example of Black excellence” is because in this economy, it can’t afford to be anything else.

For years, rumors of a modern Broadway revival of The Wiz floated about New York’s small Black theater community, an urban legend that could one day see reality if enough folks just kept hope alive. In 2018, hope began its long journey toward reality when Ruffin, who also co-wrote the book for the Tony-winning Some Like It Hot revival, began developing a new book for St. Louis’s Muny Theatre, the oldest and largest outdoor musical theater in the United States. Like everything else in the world that relied on in-person interaction, the show encountered a setback when COVID hit. But that forced pause turned out to be a blessing.

“It takes this time to marinate so that it can really become exactly what you want,” Ruffin says. “And I guess it kind of makes you braver because you’ve been staring at it for so long. You might as well just go for it, is how I feel. Everything about this show is a very big swing, and that’s what makes it work.”

Visual details in the revival telegraph a contemporary, post-Obama Wiz before the first ba-da-bump-ba-dump of “Ease on Down the Road” bass line ever drops. The set, conceived by Oscar-winning Black Panther designer Hannah Beachler, is framed in a black-and-white pattern evoking body paint commonly seen at Afropunk, while Sharen Davis’s costuming speaks to the show’s overall ethos of compassionate, multifaceted expansiveness.Dorothy — sans Toto — sports a black watch plaid skater dress and Doc Martens, a choice sure to capture the attention of both vintage-curious zoomers and their Gen-X relatives.

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“Our Dorothy is a teenager, and it was important to me to raise the stakes of the show to not give her a companion because that makes it a little safer,” Williams explains. (For the record, she loves dogs! She has nothing against canines as a species!) “She’s got this buddy with her and I really wanted her to feel isolated. I did not want to give her anything that could give her comfort and make her feel like she had something from home.”

Nichelle Lewis, in her Broadway debut as Dorothy, seems to combine the best of Judy Garland, Mills, and Ross’s performances even as she creates her own. Lewis, 24, was able to connect to the lonesomeness and alienation that endears Dorothy to so many. She grew up next to a farm in Virginia, and her mother raised Lewis and her sisters after Lewis’s father died when she was 10. “I wanted to create a Dorothy who was free in herself, who felt very confident in herself and knowing who she is, but also was just scared of what was happening around her,” Lewis says. She sings with an innocence and yearning rooted in experience.

Similarly, the Guyanese-Canadian Deborah Cox, who plays Glinda, found herself relating to the message of The Wiz — that you already have everything you need within you to face your fears — and Ruffin’s take on the quintessential Blackness of the original. “As a Black Caribbean person, a lot of different things resonate with me,” she says, adding that she felt inspired by the success of Trinidadian director Geoffrey Holder, who brought home Tonys for his direction and choreography of the original Broadway production, despite not being producer Ken Harper’s first choice for either position.

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In Lumet’s film, the foursome traversed various neighborhoods of New York City. The 2024 revival jumps around the country, from the Tremé/Lafitte of New Orleans to the queer, fluorescent haired adolescent buskers and go-go bucket drummers of Washington, D.C.’s Gallery Place, to the smooth calypso rhythms that populate Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. “I mean, the music in the show spoke to me when I read the real history behind the costume design,” Cox says. “There are so many things that I can relate to in the show, even though I didn’t grow up here in the U.S. … I think that’s it from a soul level.”

The movie version of The Wiz didn’t succeed at the box office, but it did become a cult classic. The influence of the film shows up in other works. The Moonin Caroline, or Change evokes Lena Horne’s cinematic iteration of Glinda, while the joyous clutter core of a Taylor Mac show recalls some of Tony Walton’s production design choices. The Wiz is for the misfits, a quality shared by many a queer kid who found refuge in its music, in the thousands of school theater productions that have been staged since 1975. And while The Wizard of Oz has always been queer — hello, friends of Dorothy — this new version of The Wiz boasts quite possibly the swishiest cowardly lion ever to grace a stage. The queer subtext that made The Wizard of Oz a camp classic has blossomed into text, as evidenced by the performances of Kyle Ramar Freeman (Lion) and Avery Wilson (Scarecrow). For one, Lion’s mane could not be more laid if he let Ms. Tina Knowles play in his locks.

“Bay-BEE! Twenty-two inches, the beard and the hair,” exclaims Freeman via Zoom, who has to arrive at every performance 30 minutes before his castmates to complete hair and makeup, which is all kept in place, sweat free, with some sort of industrial strength antiperspirant setting spray. Freeman also makes full use of Lion’s tail, to great comedic effect.

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“When I was trying to discover what I would move and what I wanted to embody, as far as character goes, I am whirling that tail,” says Freeman, who came out to his “religious” family at 23, when he was just beginning to build an acting career in the theater. “I’m shaking that tail. I’m crying with the tail. I’m tracing my tail. I’m just having fun because I love a prop.”

The luxurious mane and the tail-flipping are all wrapped up in something bigger for Freeman, namely the show’s themes of bravery and self-acceptance. Coming out provided necessary liberation that eventually led to Freeman’s casting in The Wiz. “When I freed myself in my personal life from the constraints of trying to be something else, I was denying jobs, which I had never done in my nine years in New York City!” Freeman, whose Broadway credits include A Strange Loop and Fat Ham, says. “I was getting offers. It was like, ‘Oh, I get it.’ I have to do the self stuff first so that the other stuff can be presented to me and I can receive it and I can be ready for it.”

One of the oddball, oft-overlooked canonical notes of the Wizard is a bit where Scarecrow innocently talks about “going both ways.” The fact that Wilson identifies as bisexual puts a nice, tidy little bow on that. “I can be whoever the hell I decide to be. And that’s power,” Wilson says. “Getting into a space where there is a queer maybe undertone or just hints of it throughout a sprinkle of it, I thought it was great, to be honest.”

The stylistic influences of Beyoncé’s Homecoming show at Coachella — which opens with the horn fanfare from The Wiz — are abundant. There are the dancers who bring the yellow brick road to life, dressed as southern HBCU drum majors, complete with tall, furry bearskin hats. Brady’s Wiz delivers flourish after flourish with a cape, mace, and top hat that call back to the deceitful, feel-good chicanery of The Music Man as much as FAMU’s Marching 100. This revival was also choreographed by JaQuel Knight, the man who choreographed Homecoming and the music videos for “Formation” and “Single Ladies.” No wonder The Wiz feels like a show aimed squarely at the viewing pleasures and discernment of Queen Bey and her progeny; there is a true sense of shared creative DNA.

Photo: Elliott Jerome Brown

A high collar, striped afro, and high-heeled platform boots made De Shield’s originating turn as the Wiz into something indelible (yet another detail vindicating Holder’s vision), while Richard Pryor’s Wiz of the 1978 film, once unmasked, is memorable as a shrunken, whimpering pajama-clad normie. In 2015, NBC aired a live broadcast performance featuring a cross-dressed Queen Latifah as the Wiz, enjoying all the unchecked, unquestioned power charismatic men are able to occupy with little friction—well, at least until they’re revealed to be hucksters. For Brady, playing the Wiz is an artistic homecoming that allows him to fully own his capabilities as a theater savant who shares Robin Williams’s peripatetic comic energy. While he attained celebrity as a standout on the television improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Brady has always seemed most at home on the stage, in front of a theater audience, whether as Lola in Kinky Boots or spitting rhymes in Freestyle Love Supreme. “My Wiz is definitely part actor, part magician, part flim-flam man, with a little bit of Willy Wonka thrown in,” says Brady. Once he’s revealed as a con artist imposter, Brady takes all that energy and stuffs it into the preferred uniform of middle-age zaddies the world over: a track suit.

Tinman’s (Phillip Johnson Richardson) backwards cap calls to mind the Fresh Prince. And Cox’s Glinda? Think feathered sleeves that recall Yoncé’s stagewear at the 2018 Global Citizens Festival in South Africa.

Much like Shuffle Along, the 1921 grandparent of all Black Broadway shows, this revival’s road to the Great White Way did not begin not with a triumphant run of performances at one of New York’s storied downtown theaters. It was refined on the road — just like the original Broadway run. For the show’s company of travel-tested newcomers, that meant tour stops in Des Moines, Baltimore, Atlanta, Cleveland, San Francisco, Tempe, Arizona, Greenville, South Carolina, and more. Yes, they’re very happy to be on Broadway, but chatting with the cast, one gets the sense that they’re also happy simply to be sleeping in the same place for a few months. Because this revival kicked off with a national tour, the show’s set pieces were designed for a variety of stage sizes and dimensions. When our protagonists finally arrive at the Emerald City, we see how designer Daniel Brodie has rendered it in projections and video. It was a cost-effective method to create the world of Oz that can quickly scale up or down, but also a way to pay homage to the culture — each piece of architecture is shaped like a different Afrocentric hair style. And the Wiz sits upon a throne that appears to be encased in a large green perfume bottle topped with a crown of afro picks.

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Across venues however, what remains consistent is that tapping one’s foot along to the familiar rhythms of “Ease on Down the Road,” or “You Can’t Win” still comes wrapped up, by the show’s end, with a big dose of sweet, full-throated nostalgia and a palpable journey toward self-belief. And that’s because, even when you strip away the costuming and all the other candy-like elements of The Wiz, there’s a soundtrack — or in this case, a forthcoming cast recording — that inspires the same kind of imagination that animated, enchanted, and even frightened a 3-year-old Betts.

“When I first did the Lion in sixth grade, I was a gay black boy from Miami, Florida who came from the church who was not able to be who I fully was,” Freeman says. “So the fact that I get to revisit this role, being who I am and comfortable in my skin and getting to tell this story from a different perspective is beautiful and rewarding to me … you can learn to love yourself. The world will open up for you and you’re going to have to do things that scare you, and that’s okay.”

Review: “This is not a time of peace” Written by Deb Margolin, Mounts a Multi-layered Memory Play

Charlotte Cohn as Alina, Roger Hendricks SImon as Hillel. Photo by Steven Pisano.

The title of Deb Margolin‘s new play, This is not a time of peace, is spoken twice in the course of the performance, each time in reference to a different era. This doubling not only draws attention to historical correspondences but also evokes the play’s emphasis on memory and experience–every part of which, we are told, “is still happening” “somewhere in time”–as fluid and malleable and exceeding boundaries, a conception echoed in the form of the play itself. Based in part on autobiographical connections to Margolin’s actual father during the Cold War and making its world premiere at Midtown’s Theatre Row, This is not a time of peace sketches parallels between the personal and the political in its compelling rendition of a story at once intimate and with far-reaching resonances.

Steven Rattazzi as Joseph McCarthy. Photo by Steven Pisano.

A pair of monologues delivered by professional writer Alina (a spectacular Charlotte Cohn) provide a frame for the play and, taking place in 2020, represent its most contemporaneous portions. The rest of the show looks back, back to when Alina was still married to her gadget-loving husband Moses (Simon Feil) in the early 2000s, and further back to her father Hillel’s (Roger Hendricks Simon) encounter with McCarthyism half a century prior. The boundaries among these tangled threads of memory prove less than resilient as the narrative progresses, but one certainty from the outset is that Hillel’s past experiences have resulted in passing on what Alina refers to as a kind of “epigenetic” trauma. Hillel, a Jewish scientist with roots in Russia who worked for the U.S. government, lost his security clearance during the national persecution of Communists in the 1950s. But what were the specific circumstances? Was her father in fact a Communist? And did he really cross paths not only with the reprehensible Senator Joseph McCarthy (Steven Rattazzi) but also with storied McCarthy opponent Adolf Berle (Frank Licato)? Where does a Muscovite named Daniil (Richard Hollis) fit in? While Alina can still talk to her elderly father about his past, she commits to unraveling its mysteries and ambiguities.

Charlotte Cohn as Alina, Simon Feil as Moses. Photo by Steven Pisano.

As she attempts to pin down answers concerning Hillel, whose age-related lapses are an affecting part of Hendricks Simon’s multi-dimensional performance, Alina’s own domestic life is threatening to come undone. While she loves Moses, or maintains that she does, she has found herself having an affair with poet and novelist Martin (Ken King), about whom she has similarly conflicted feelings, and whose possessive passion and alpha masculinity present a sharp contrast to amiable IT worker Moses. The assertive physicality in scenes between King and Cohn fruitfully complements the sense skillfully created in scenes between Cohn and Feil of a sort of polite marital machine chugging along atop an expanding void of distance between its partners. Throughout, the sound and lighting design is put to subtle, even sparing, but quite effective use to generate unease, suggest confusion, and more, while the set design hints at a mesh of neural pathways as much as it does a network of roots.

Ken King as Martin, Charlotte Cohn as Alina. Photo by Steven Pisano.

This is not a time of peace makes clear the consonance between McCarthy’s language of internal enemies and the political rhetoric of today (“Communist” has retained its place among those enemy ranks by morphing into the more nebulous “socialist”). Alongside but inextricable from such linkages are its insightful explorations of guilt, betrayal, and fractured senses of belonging, as well as of the strength to do what we can for others/the Othered. Alina says that things only seem to end, and This is not a time of peace can be one of those things for anyone who sees it.

This is not a time of peace

Written by Deb Margolin
Directed by Jerry Heymann
Presented by New Light Theater Project at Theatre Row
410 W 42nd Street, Manhattan, NYC
February 20-March 16, 2024

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.