FST’s ‘America in One Room’ Reconciles Beyond the Stage

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Photo Caption: Jason Odell Williams, Almeria Campbell, Lipica Shah, and Nicholas Caycedo workshop ‘America in One Room’ before its world premiere. Photo by John Jones.

In September of 2019, 523 Americans gathered in Grapevine, Texas to participate in a weekend of deliberative polling. Pulled from all walks of life, the event’s goal was to force politically diverse strangers into moderated conversations about some of the biggest issues of the day—immigration, the environment, the economy, healthcare, and foreign policy. Called “America in One Room,” the event proved fruitful in that it demonstrated a highly informed public engaged in respectful dialogue is more likely to find common ground. For playwright Jason Odell Williams, the event would prove fruitful for reasons professional and personal.

 “I had the ‘New York Times’ story about ‘America in One Room’ on my desk for a while,” says Williams, “and I eventually put together two pages of notes on what a play based on the event might look like.” Then COVID-19 began its insidious spread, forcing theatres to shutter their doors and sending Williams into a bit of an existential quandary. “I was unemployed for a bit, watched a lot of BoJack Horseman, hung out a lot with my family,” says Williams, “but generally I was just living with all this uncertainty.” Until he got a call from Florida Studio Theatre (FST) reps who were trying to accumulate strong pitches for commissions. “The call was a lifeline,” says Williams.

 He took those two pages of notes and built out a story based on the article sitting on his desk. FST selected his work, appropriately titled ‘America in One Room,’ for a commission. “That commission allowed me to survive in New York for a while,” says Williams, “but more importantly, it gave me a sense of direction.”

 Though a full production was never guaranteed, a final version of the screenplay made its world premiere at FST on December 8th. The story explores the dynamic of eight fictional characters that Williams crafted after careful research of the actual event from 2019. “I dug through all of the research data on the event’s website and I even managed to track down four of the attendees through Facebook that were willing to talk to me about their experience,” says Williams.

 That research helped lend real-world tension to the plays real-world themes. Those themes include all the hot-button issues by which people of different political persuasions judge each other. “The play certainly has a red-blue divide, but it’s not about the issues themselves,” says Williams, “it’s about how these characters with different viewpoints relate to each other.”

 As in the ‘America in One Room’ event from 2019, Williams’ characters come to realize the polarized narratives they’ve staked their claims to crumble when meaningful dialogue takes place. They come to learn that, as Barack Obama said in the wake of the 2019 event, “behind every opinion lies a real human being with a story to tell.”

 To that end, Williams found that in researching the 2019 event and writing the diverse cast of ‘America in One Room,’ his relationships with friends and family that had differing opinions grew less tense. “The play has some ugly moments, but ultimately it’s hopeful,” says Williams. “I think there’s a way for this country to move forward. I don’t know what it looks like, but I know it starts with listening. For me, I try to ask more questions now rather than get into arguments.”

 ‘American in One Room’ runs through February 27th, 2022. On Thursdays through February 17th, discussions inspired by the play’s themes will take place in FST’s Keating Theatre.

Photo Caption: Jason Odell Williams, Almeria Campbell, Lipica Shah, and Nicholas Caycedo workshop ‘America in One Room’ before its world premiere. Photo by John Jones.

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