By Retta Blaney
The U.S. Senator from North Carolina is an unquestioning supporter of all things red, especially on God and guns. His convictions are challenged, though, after a shooting at his sons’ elementary school leaves 29 dead. After 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 2007, after the mass killings at Virginia Tech, a football rival of his alma mater, the University of Virginia.
“I watched the news and saw a candlelight vigil in Charlottesville and it struck a chord 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.”
Then came the shooting outside a Tucson supermarket in which 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.”
The tragedy at Sandy Hook prompted him to write. 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 the JCC of Greater Rochester’s CenterStage Theatre, 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 gun control more evenhandedly. Meranto also suggested the twist that the senator’s remarks be tweeted, two years before 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” and included it in the Top Ten L.A. Theatre Productions of 2016. It is now at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages, with tickets on sale through Sept. 3.
Talkbacks have been a part of Church and State’s runs. In New York the talkbacks met three Wednesdays in April, featuring representatives from the Virginia Tech Victims Family Outreach Foundation; actress Julianne Moore, founding chairwoman of Everytown for Gun Safety; and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.
During the Virginia Tech talkback, 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 theater producers in Alaska, Florida, North Carolina, rural Virginia, Washington, D.C., about possible productions.
“I want to stir up some controversy and start conversations.”
He sees areas for compromise, such as universal background checks. He created an open-ended finish that encourages 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 intends no disrespect to people of faith or Southerners, and he does not see conservative Christians as the enemy in gun control talks. He saves his wrath for one target.
“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.”
Shootings have not affected Williams directly, but he thinks “we’re all less than six degrees of separation now from gun violence.”
“There’s stuff in the newspapers every day,” he said just as he was interrupted by a text from Rob Nagle, the actor playing Sen. Charles Whitmore, informing him about a shooting at a San Bernardino elementary school that left two adults and one child dead and another child wounded.
“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 Brain Games, has never worked in politics. He says he could only be lured into politics if Nagle would run for office. Williams would like to be his speechwriter.
Williams grew up in a mixed-faith home. His mother is Roman Catholic and his father is Protestant. He was baptized but not confirmed, and his first two Off-Broadway plays centered on 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 worshiping 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.”
Retta Blaney is an award-winning journalist and author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors.