Inside The Playwrights Project – Jason Odell Williams


What’s the Big Idea?

Where do you get your ideas? Writers are used to that question. They usually give the same answer…

Ideas are everywhere. There’s a constant stream on TV, snippets of conversation, dreams, the radio, the Internet, or the newspaper. Getting an idea is the easy part. Finding a good idea is not so easy. The trick is noticing when a good one passes by.

Jason Odell Williams snagged the notion for his latest play in The New York Times. Here’s how he described that flash of inspiration:

I read an article in The Times about an event called America in One Room. A non-profit, non-partisan group was behind the experiment. In September 2019, they gathered 530 people from all across the country, and put them in one hotel room in Texas. The participants came from all walks of life and all political affiliations: Democrats, Republicans, and everyone in-between. They got them in one room, and divided them into big groups and small groups, to talk about the big issues.

The theory was: If you put a diverse array of people in a room and get them talking to each other, you could change the polarized dynamic in America. It had to be real talk, not people yelling at each other on Twitter, not quoting sound bites back and forth – but a real conversation, with real answers to honest questions. Why do you think that? Why do you vote that way? What is it that you’re concerned about?

So they got the people talking, mostly about their concerns.

It didn’t immediately work.

At the beginning of the week, it felt like the participants’ ideas were planted in the ground and nobody would budge. By the end of the week, it felt like there was much more wiggle room, more give and take. More people started seeing things from the other person’s point of view, and it wasn’t contentious.

The experiment actually worked. It showed that peoples’ hearts and minds can change. That captured my imagination.

Today’s political landscape often feels hopeless. Like there’s no possibility of change, or dialogue. If you’re on one side, that’s it; if you’re on the other side, that’s it. You’ve got to pick sides. And you won’t even talk to the people on the other side.

This experiment was a glimpse of hope. That really grabbed me – and I instantly saw the dramatic potential.

I thought this news story would be a great jumping-off point for a play. But America in One Room is still a fictionalized version of the actual events. For this story to work on stage, I had to make it interesting. The reality was just a room with people talking. So I had to invent some dramatic conflict. I also set the story in late 2020, to frame it in the present, not back in the past. That’s where I’m at in my first draft. We’ll see where it goes from there.”

Jason Odell Williams is an award-winning playwright and Emmy-nominated television producer based in New York City. His plays include Church & State and Handle with Care, which was recently performed at Florida Studio Theatre. He’s currently working on his latest play, America in One Room, as part of FST’s Playwrights Project.