Wednesday, April 19, 2017

'Church and State' play aims to stir up conversation about guns




     The U.S. Senator from North Carolina is an unquestioning supporter of all things red, especially in relationship to God and guns.  His convictions are challenged, though, after a shooting at his sons’ elementary school leaves 29 dead. Following the funeral for one of the victims, he admits in response to a blogger’s question that the killings are enough to make him doubt God’s existence.

     He is running for a third term and his comments go viral.  Three days before the election.  

   Jason Odell Williams, 42, was inspired to write his latest play, Church and State, after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, but he had been thinking about gun violence since at least 2007 with the mass killings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, a football rival of his alma mater, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

   “I watched the news and saw a candlelight vigil in Charlottesville and it struck a cord with me,” he said during a telephone interview from his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  “I had been a student there not that long before.  It really shook me.”

  That incident had been followed by the shooting outside a Tucson supermarket in which Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 16 others were shot, six of them fatally.  

     “I thought, ‘What if it had been a man and he had been a Republican,” Williams said. “That’s a really dark and twisted thought, but when tragedy strikes, our thoughts become dark and twisted.”

     Sandy Hook’s tragedy prompted him to put his thoughts on paper. His first draft of Church and State was “like a well-written Facebook rant with a very one-sided liberal New Yorker view.”

    He sent it to Ralph Meranto, artistic director of JCC CenterStage in Rochester, NY, who had produced his first play, Handle With Care.  Meranto “asked smart questions” and offered suggestions to make the characters — the Senator; his wife, a conservative Christian; and his campaign manager, a liberal Jew from New York — more three dimensional and to present the issue of gun control more even-handedly.  He also thought it would be fun to have the Senator’s remarks be tweeted to spread quicker.  Meranto didn’t know his 2014 suggestion would be so timely in 2017 with the election of America’s Tweeter in Chief.

     The show had a successful run in Rochester before moving to Los Angeles where the Huffington Post called it “powerful, humorous and highly contemporary,” naming it one of the Top Ten L.A. Theatre Productions of 2016. It is now at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages, with tickets on sale through July 2.

     Talkbacks have been a part of Church and State’s runs.  In New York they were held after three performances in April featuring representatives from Virginia Tech Victims Family Outreach Fund; Everytown For Gun Safety, with an appearance by actress Julianne Moore; and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. During the Virginia Tech event, a woman identifying herself as a Donald Trump voter said she thought the play had done a good job of presenting both sides and later told Williams in the lobby that she hopes the play will be presented in red states.  That would be fine with him.

     “My goal was to get it to New York and then across the country.  I’d love to see it in all the purple states.  That’s my ultimate goal.”

     He is in talks with theatre producers in North Carolina, rural Virginia, Florida, Washington, D.C. and Alaska about possible productions there.

     “I want to stir up some controversy and start conversations.”

  He sees areas for compromises, such as universal background checks. He created an open-ended finish to allow audiences to draw their own conclusions.

     “We’re so divided now.  Maybe the rubber band will break and we’ll all come back to the middle.”

   Williams is adamant that he does not want his play to be thought of as disrespectful to people of faith or Southerners, and makes it clear he doesn't see conservative Christians as the enemy in gun control talks.  He saves his wrath for one target alone.

     “To me it’s the NRA.  They’re only thinking about profit.  Nothing about their agenda is reasonable.  Living without fear is more important than somebody’s gun collection.”

     Although he has had no personal experience with the issue, he thinks “we’re all less than six degrees of separation now from gun violence.”

     “There’s stuff in the newspapers everyday,” he said.

  Just then, Williams, in almost unbelievable timing, was interrupted by a text from Rob Nagle, the actor playing the Senator. The text informed him about a shooting at a San Bernardino elementary school that had just left two adults and one child dead, with another child injured. 

     “It’s crazy.  It just keeps happening.  People are afraid to go to the mall, the movies, church, places that are supposed to be safe.” 

     Williams, who was nominated for an Emmy Award as a writer for National Geographic Channel’s TV series “Brain Games,” has never worked in politics and says the only thing that could lure him into it is that in the unlikely event Nagle would run for office, Williams would like to be his speechwriter. 

     He also is not a person of faith although his mother is Catholic and father Protestant and he was baptized but not confirmed.  And his first two Off-Broadway plays centered around God and faith.

     “I don’t know where I stand, which is why I keep writing about it,” he said, adding that his wife grew up Orthodox Jewish in Israel and turned from her religion when she moved to America.  After the birth of their daughter, Imogen, now 11, they began worshipping at a synagogue and sending her to Hebrew school.  He has no plans to convert.

     “It’s nice to have a sense of community, of coming together,” he said.  “I’m always examining what it is and what it means.” 

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