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.

Meet Award-Winning Playwright, Director, and Actor: Psalmayene 24, Writer of Dear Mapel

Go on a journey through Psalm’s adolescence and major life milestones in his joyfully energetic coming of age story that will take you from Park Slope, Brooklyn to Washington, DC. Through a series of letters, both real and imagined, Psalm explores the power of the written word to connect us with our loved ones, our past, and our future. GET TICKETS TO DEAR MAPEL

Psalm—as his colleagues call him—is currently The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Playwright in Residence at Mosaic Theater and a member of The Cabinet at Studio Theatre. He is the writer and lyricist of The Blackest Battle (Theater Alliance) and the writer, director, and lyricist of the film The Freewheelin’ Insurgents (Arena Stage). His one-man play, Free Jujube Brown!, is recognized as a seminal work in Hip-Hop Theatre and is published in the anthology, Plays from the Boom-Box Galaxy: Theater from the Hip-Hop Generation (TCG). As an actor, Psalm has appeared on HBO’s critically acclaimed series The Wire and has been nominated for a Helen Hayes Award (Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical). He is a proud member of Actors’ Equity Association.
Dear Mapel Teaser Trailer
Join Psalm on the journey of a lifetime in Dear Mapel BUY TICKETS
With gratitude and admiration, Mosaic Theater Company is honored to dedicate the 21/22 Season in memory of our dear friend and supporter, Marvin Weissberg. 

Gurman Agency’s Anne Grossman Interviewed in New York Time’s Return to Broadway Review

A Milestone for Broadway as ‘Pass Over’ Begins Performances

Anne Grossman

Anne Grossman and Jennifer Rockwood hustled into Broadway’s August Wilson Theater shortly before 8 p.m. Wednesday and, beneath their face masks, smiled.

They had shown their proof of vaccination, passed through metal detectors, and, as they stepped down into the lobby, marveled at being back inside a theater. “It’s thrilling” Grossman said, “and a little unsettling.”

The two women, both 58-year-old New Yorkers, were among 1,055 people who braved concerns about the highly contagious Delta variant in order to, once again, see a play on Broadway. It was the first performance of “Pass Over,” by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, which is the first play staged on Broadway since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered theaters in March of 2020.

“I wanted to be part of the restart of live theater.” Rockwood said.

The play, both comedic and challenging, is about two Black men trapped under a streetlight, afraid that if they dare to leave their corner, they could be killed by a police officer.

The crowd, vaccinated and masked but not socially distanced, was rapturous, greeting Nwandu’s arrival with a standing ovation, and another when she and the play’s director, Danya Taymor, walked onstage after the play to hug the three actors.

Those attending the play were required to show proof of vaccination to enter, and to wear masks while inside the theater.
Those attending the play were required to show proof of vaccination to enter, and to wear masks while inside the theater.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

The night was significant, not only as Broadway seeks to rebound from a shutdown of historic length, but also as it seeks to respond to renewed concerns about racial equity that have been raised over the last year. “Pass Over” is one of seven plays by Black writers slated to be staged on Broadway this season, and, like many of them, it grapples directly with issues of race and racism.

“Thank you for celebrating Black joy!” the playwright, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, told celebrants at an afterparty on West 52nd Street, outside the theater.
“Thank you for celebrating Black joy!” the playwright, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, told celebrants at an afterparty on West 52nd Street, outside the theater.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Read the full article by Michael Paulson for the New York Times here.

‘Age of Bees’ written by Tira Palmquist, Directed by Eddie DeHais, to be staged in Monmouth

Theater at Monmouth plans to presents the Maine Premiere of Tira Palmquist’s “Age of Bees,” an eerily prescient drama written in 2008 about a world-wide pandemic and its aftermath on people, the planet, and, most importantly, the bees.

The play opens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 22, other performances are set for 7:30 p.m. July 23, 31, Aug. 4, 10, 14, 15 and 19; and at 1 p.m. Aug. 18.

Mel finds safe haven on an isolated farm, tending to the last blooming apple orchards as primary pollinator. Enter Jonathan, an independent field researcher collecting samples of plants to start anew. Mel sees possibility and purpose in Jonathan, and in Mel, Jonathan discovers a secret that could save the world.

Palmquist’s coming-of-age drama, imagines a world where environmental disaster, and a rapidly spreading plague, has reduced civilization and decimated hope. Still a group of orphaned and abandoned girls find shelter and possibility in the rebirth of an apple orchard. The key to saving humanity is just a drop of blood away.

Director Eddie DeHais asks, “What do we do in the wake of a global pandemic? This is not just a question we are all wrestling with in this moment, but one that is alive in Age of Bees by Tira Palmquist. A global pandemic has devastated the human race and ten years later there are only small pockets of survivors barely scraping by. On an apple orchard in Ohio, we meet two young women, Mel and Deborah, struggling with the painful transition from childhood to adulthood when all the rules have changed. Age of Bees shows us a world that has spiraled much further down the well than our own, and provides a blueprint of how to not just survive but a way to find hope in building anew.

Playwright, Tira Palmquist, is known for plays that merge the personal, the political, and the poetic. Her most produced play, Two Degrees, premiered at the Denver Center, and was subsequently produced by Tesseract Theater in St. Louis and Prime Productions at the Guthrie (among others). Her play The Way North was a Finalist for the O’Neill, an Honorable Mention for the 2019 Kilroy’s List, and was featured in the 2019 Ashland New Plays Festival.

Age of Bees features Charence Higgins as Sarah, Amber McNew as Mel, Michael Rosas as Jonathan, and Tori Thompson as Deborah. Directed by Eddie DeHais; Set design by German Cardenas-Alaminos, Costume Design by Elizabeth Rocha, Lighting Design by SeifAllah Salotto-Cristobal, Properties and Scenic Art by Emma Kielty, Stage Management by Kailey Pelletier, and Sound Design by Rew Tippin.

Post-performance discussions will be pre-recorded and audiences can stream the content before or after their selected dates. Discussions with the cast and creative team will cover the critical historical, artistic, and cultural perspectives of the worlds of each individual play.

Tickets cost $36 for adults, $31 for senior citizens, and $22 for students (18 and younger). Family Show tickets cost $17 for adults, $12 for children.

For reservations or more information, call the TAM Box Office at 207-933-9999 or visit theateratmonmouth.org.

Article from CentralMaine.com

An Interview with Audrey Cefaly on MAYTAG VIRGIN from the Gulfshore Playhouse

We interviewed Audrey Cefaly, playwright of Maytag Virgin. Read her interview below, and be sure to get your tickets to Maytag Virgin now before they sell out!

Audrey Cefaly

Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind Maytag Virgin? Were there any specific influences?
The idea first came to me during Washington D.C.’s annual Intersections Festival back in 2012. The show’s curator, Gwydion Suilebhan, asked me to join a group of local playwrights to collectively answer a prompt for pieces “exploring a collision of people of different ages, races, cultures, classes, or sexual identities.” I chose to write a short solo piece about a Southern protestant woman and the tension that arises when a Catholic man moves in next door.

While the finished piece wasn’t exactly a firestarter in a city hungry for political theatre, it did feel authentically southern and 100% on brand for me. In the end, it was very well-received in its short form. I adapted it into a full-length a few years later for the inaugural Women’s Voices Theatre Festival. It is perhaps the most autobiographical of all of my plays.

What is your writing process like?
In my work, I start with the audience in mind. The pieces that I create (often “two-handers”) are structured specifically to effect a sort of communal release. I am also an outspoken proponent of stillness in story-telling; the silence in my plays is not incidental. On the contrary, it operates as another character in the narrative. It is my experience that a text stripped to its essence returns the gift of tension. Indeed, much of the story that would otherwise be inaudible reveals itself in these quiet moments. I love a cut almost as much as a great sentence. Almost.

Nothing in my writing is sacrosanct. I believe the best writers understand that the script doesn’t care about your feelings, it just wants to work. And that’s a very freeing idea. It means anything (no matter how good it is) can be demoted, truncated or cut entirely to make the piece work as a whole. There’s sort of this myth that we, as writers, are in control of our narratives, but the truth is each story is in the process of carving its own riverbed and it will “go like it goes” regardless of what you have in mind. For writers that work this way, there’s not a lot of room for preconception.

You identify yourself as a “Southern Playwright.” What is it about the south that continues to inspire your work?
The southern dialect has a musicality to it that pairs well with my love of lyricism; I traffic in Williams and Faulkner and Henley and McCullers. I love it all; it’s so rich and distilled. Alabama will always be a part of me. And these stories help me learn more about who I am. There is a sort of unapologetic simplicity to the southern way of life. That’s not to say that it isn’t without complication and it’s certainly very colorful, but the rules are simpler, I think. We’re in the Bible belt, after all; quandaries often involve one’s relationship with Jesus. Around the time of writing Maytag, I was watching a Stephen Fry documentary. He’d been doing some travelling across America and found himself at an Alabama parole board hearing (think of it!). It was fascinating to me how the parole officer kept invoking God as the path to rehabilitation. And that’s a scenario not uniquely endemic to the south, but an absolute principal for living: get God: get better. This theme permeates all of my southern pieces.

Besides being set in the south, are there common themes across your work? What is it about those themes that interest you?
Ever heard that old children’s song, “There’s a Hole in the Bucket (Dear Liza, Dear Liza)?” That’s my territory. I’ve always been interested in ache stories. I come from teachers and therapists and so I have a natural inclination to embrace those around me who are suffering; my writing is an outcrop of that tendency.There are a lot of people in the world like Jack and Lizzy who are adrift, unmoored, and looking around for something that feels like home. Maytag says yeah, and you know what, that’s kinda beautiful. It’s beautiful because we often find ourselves at the bottom—at our worst—at the very moment we are doing our damndest to love someone or to love someone through the hell of life. Those noble efforts, that drudgery…that’s what love is. And too often, in those “moments” we forget to love ourselves, we forget to ask for the love we need, we forget to breathe. We convince ourselves it will always be this way…that we are unlovable or that we have run out of chances. The rejection of this fallacy is really at the core of every single love story ever told. It is why we cry at movies and why we watch our favorite romances over and over again, pausing at those tender moments…the ones that speak to us. We are—all of us—longing to feel alive and loved…and to connect.

Does Maytag Virgin resonate with you differently given the times that we’re living in compared to when you wrote it originally?
These days, human touch is a fantasy. I used to characterize Maytag Virgin as a love story, and it is. But more specifically, it’s about being “seen.” Truly seen. And I think Jack does that for Lizzy. He’s the friend she so desperately needs. And though they live right next door to each other, they just can’t quite get to each other. So I think it’s that “so close and yet so far” vibe that’s really resonating with me right now.

Ultimately, what do you hope the audience will take away from Maytag Virgin?
One of the biggest themes in the play is guilt. We are witnessing a woman in the throes of grief and shame surrounding the untimely death of her husband and a man desperately trying to outrun the torment of ghosts from a not-so-distant tragedy of his own. But guilt is like dancing with the devil. It can take you under if you’re not careful. It can steal everything worth living for. It stands defiantly in the middle of the road, blocking all forward movement. The only way around…is through.

Grief, then — paradoxically — is the remedy. When we are reeling from tragic loss, the last thing on our minds is, “but at least I’m taking a good hard look at myself.”

Indeed, there is a certain sleight of hand in the revelatory nature of grief. It is perhaps the greatest form of self-love we are afforded as humans. It has the power to bring us face to face with ourselves. To question our own identity. And ultimately to love ourselves in some very important ways.

There’s a water motif that runs throughout the play. If the audience is open to look for those moments, I do think they will come away with a deeper understanding. Hopefully they will feel the uplift that I feel when I experience Jack and Lizzy. It’s an endearing relationship, and there’s certainly room for laughter and release. On a deeper level, I hope they will see themselves in the characters.

Read the full interview from the Gulfshore Playhouse here.