by Lydia Baxter and Jena Rashid
When playwright Jason Odell Williams saw a 2019 article in the New York Times with a photo featuring hundreds of faces staring back at him, theatrical inspiration struck like lighting.
“There were people of all ages, races, and genders from across the country,” said the playwright.
The article was about the America in One Room convention, which took place in Dallas, TX, in September 2019. The event brought together over 500 American voters to participate in a neutral and unbiased conversation about the major issues of the day. At the heart of this experiment was one goal: event organizers wanted to know, “Is there a way to bridge America’s seemingly insurmountable divide?”
“As I looked into all of those faces, I began to wonder,” continued Williams. “‘What are these people like?'” All of these different people really came together under one roof to discuss their opinions in a fair and respectful way? The notion was just fascinating to me. I knew there was a story there.”
That story would become America in One Room, a fast-paced new play commissioned by FST.
“It’s a great snapshot of the world we are living in today,” said FST Producing Artistic Director Richard Hopkins. “And while this show is serious, it is also very lively and very humorous.”
In this World Premiere, eight strangers enter the aptly named “Liberty Room” and quickly begin to size each other up. No one knows exactly what to expect. As each character is convinced they are right—sparks begin to fly, tempers begin to flare, and humor abounds.
“This play brings to light topics that people are often afraid to talk with each other about,” shared Catherine Randazzo, FST Associate Artist who has been involved in the show’s development process since day one. “But it’s also a comedy. These characters are truly human—their strengths and foibles are laid out for all to see, which creates irony and organic humor.”
That’s one of the reasons that Hopkins wanted to include the play in this year’s Winter Mainstage lineup.
“Williams is a brilliant writer who puts us in the room with these strangers,” said Hopkins. “By the end, you understand everyone and their point of view. The play covers a lot of ground and presents everyone’s perspectives in a comedic as well as dramatic way.”
Funny thing is, Williams almost didn’t write America in One Room.
“At first, I felt like the story was too big to tackle and that there were too many characters, so I put it aside,” said Williams. “But I kept that section of the newspaper on my desk for months. I don’t really know why, but something prevented me from putting it in the recycling bin.”
There was something about the story that he couldn’t shake.
It wasn’t until the spring of 2020, when Randazzo reached out to Williams about FST’s Playwrights Project, an artistic initiative launched during the pandemic that commissioned writers to develop new work for FST stages, that Williams picked up that newspaper clipping once more.
“They were interested in big ideas, with big themes and large casts. That’s when I knew why I had held onto that article for so long. This was the play I was meant to write,” said Williams.
Over the next year, FST’s creative team worked closely with Williams to develop this challenging, yet entertaining, new play. And now, this Season, we are excited to bring you its World Premiere on FST’s Mainstage.
Join us this winter for America in One Room, a new play that examines and celebrates America from the inside out.
Header Image: Sheffield Chastain, Sarah Stockton, and Lawrence Evans in FST’s production of America in One Room. Photo by John Jones.