THE BASICS: CHURCH & STATE, a 2016 play by Jason Odell Williams and directed by Ross Hewitt, starring John Kreuzer, Sabrina Kahwaty and Rachael Jamison (with Vincent DeStefano in a series of utility roles, often comics), presented by the Ujima Company to October 2, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 4:00 p.m. Lorna C. Hill Theater at Ujima Theater Company 429 Plymouth Avenue Buffalo, New York 14213 ujimacoinc.org (716) 281-0092. True, full-color programs will be distributed along with “Re-Elect Senator Charles Whitmore” campaign buttons.
Running time: 90 minutes, no break
IMAGE PREVIEW SKETCH: (adapted from playwright’s website)
After a school shooting in his hometown of Raleigh, NC, a Republican US senator makes an impromptu comment to a blogger questioning the senator’s stance on gun control and his belief in God — three days before he runs for re-election. As his devout Christian and Liberal Jewish campaign manager try to stem the damage, CHURCH & STATE examines how religion, guns and social media are affecting our political system.
THE PERFORMERS, THE PLAY AND THE PRODUCTION: This is an intense game with a small cast, the kind that Ujima excels at. It’s contemporary, hard-hitting, with moments of great hilarity contrasted with moments of horrific reality. I think of her recent offerings of SMART PEOPLE, about how even smart people struggle to come to terms with race in America, and AMERICAN SON, about a black son’s encounter with the police, and PIPELINE, about the school-to-jail pipeline “. ‘ that affects so many young black men. (Click on the titles mentioned to read my reviews of these three pieces).
This is a “crisis of conscience” play in which the protagonist, Senator Charles Whitmore, must choose between his own beliefs and those that are socially acceptable or politically expedient. And of course it’s complicated. If the senator stays silent now, he might get six years in the US Senate to persuade his fellow senators to make real change, but only if he’s re-elected.
Although there is much talk about God, this is not a theological play. Great minds throughout the ages have pondered how God and evil can coexist. The senator’s simplistic answer is that they can’t. If the evil is real and he saw with his own eyes the aftermath of the evil in the classroom after the shooting, then God cannot exist.
Once again I was struck by the immediacy of the Ujima productions. There is no raised stage in Lorna Hill’s new theater space. The actors are right there, just a few feet away. If, as you enter the theater, the usher hands you a campaign button and says, “You’re part of the play,” that doesn’t mean the audience is joining in in the traditional sense of breaking the fourth wall. For me that meant that with Ujima that fourth wall between us in the audience and those on stage becomes so thin that you’re more like a fly on the wall. You ARE in the room where it happens.
So what about this room? Dylan Regan and Brian Brown’s set and props are minimal but spot on, including some MAGA-style red hats on a table, a campaign poster that reads “Jesus is my running mate,” a craft table with unsavory snacks (but plenty “Sweet Tea”) and a cheesy couch facing the audience.
What made the play so real to me, however, was not the set, nor the excellence of John Kreuzer as a senator or Sabrina Kahwaty as a campaign manager. It was Rachael Jamison’s portrayal as Sara Whitmore, the senator’s wife, who tries to be the anchor in the stormy sea of politics and isn’t always successful.
This role reminded me so much of the pastor’s wife in Lucas Hnath’s play THE CHRISTIANS, which I saw on Road Less Traveled Productions (and also in Chautauqua) a few years ago, in which a pastor preaches in a “megachurch” that it there is no such thing as hell and that a God who really loves us will take everyone to heaven. Even unbelievers. Even Hitler. Not everyone in the church is ready to accept this message, and the pastor’s wife (played by Lisa Vitrano on RLTP) sees his career spiraling out of control.
Here with Ujima in CHURCH & STATE, Jamison’s every gesture, every look, every shift in tone, and every interaction with the other characters was just…so…real.
I highly recommend this piece.
Random Thoughts: After the show, I had a chance to speak to and ask Brian Brown, Ujima’s CEO, as Ujima’s mission statement tells us that their “primary purpose is the preservation, maintenance and performance of African-American theater.” . why they opened with a show with four white actors.
After mentioning May 14th, his response echoed what Sarah Norat-Phillips, Interim Artistic Director, posted on the company’s website regarding the 2022/2023 season. She writes, “At Ujima we strive to select work that speaks to and for the community, gives a voice to those who are all too often unheard, and sheds light on issues that need to be explored. I have selected each of these projects with these principles in mind and am confident that by choosing Ujima, our audiences will continue to find nourishment for their mind, body and spirit.”
CHURCH & STATE speaks with and for the community regardless of the skin color of the actors. It’s a strong show. And again I highly recommend it.
Rating: Five buffalo
*BUFFALO HERD (Notes on the rating system)
A BUFFALO: That means trouble. A terrible play, a grossly flawed production, or both. Unless you have a really compelling reason for attending (e.g. you are a parent of someone who is attending), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALO: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base or the play itself is problematic. If going to the theater isn’t your thing, you can look elsewhere.
THREE BUFFALO: I still have my issues, but this is one hell of a night at the theater. If you don’t go in with high expectations, chances are you’ll be satisfied.
FOUR BUFFALO: Both the production and the game are of high quality. If the genre/content is your thing, I would really try to be there.
FIVE BUFFALO: Truly superb – a rare rating. Comedy that makes you laugh out loud, drama that really touches the heart. Assuming this is the type of show you like, you would be a fool not to miss it!