Bring a diverse group of Americans together for a conference on issues dividing our country, and see what happens. Sounds like a good idea, and it actually occurred, back in 2019 in Dallas, Texas, hosted by a nonpartisan organization trying to help find solutions for those problems. It sounded like a good idea to playwright Jason Odell Williams, too, especially when he was commissioned by Florida Studio Theatre during a time in the pandemic when theater around the country was shut down. Now the world premiere of that work, America in One Room, is onstage at FST’s Keating Theatre.
Another of Williams’ plays, Handle with Care, was produced in a previous season by FST, and if you saw it you might know the mix of comedy and drama to expect here. Certainly the premise is ripe for both; you just know sparks are going to fly when eight strangers from very different backgrounds and with very different beliefs meet to talk things over. So, yes, there are plenty of zingy one-liners as the characters trade insults. But you can also count on a few surprises along the way, as each of the people gets to gradually reveal some of the hidden hurts that affect their lives.
There’s Faith (Almeria Campbell,) a Black woman from Georgia who does, indeed, have a religious faith to match her name. There’s Diego (Nicholas Caycedo), a young Latinx man who says he’s only there because his parents made him come, and there’s Mike (Sheffield Chastain), the older white guy from Michigan who likes sports and hunting.
We also meet Shawn (Lawrence Evans), a Black veteran with PTSD who’s in a wheelchair; Rani (Lipica Shah), a hard-driving woman of South Asian descent who might or might not find some things in common with the financial guru of Filipino background, Kevin (Linden Tailor). And then there’s the Jewish Jessica (Charlotte Cohn), who’s very unhappy that her hard-to-please mother Pearl (Marina Re) has tagged along on a weekend Jessica thought would be her own. You’ve got to feel sympathy for Lisa (Sarah Stockton), the well-meaning team moderator who hopes to keep them all civil.
At first, things are fairly polite, with Lisa trotting out basic questions to which the group can respond “Agree,” “Strongly Agree,” “Neutral,” “Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree.” (Pay attention, audience; these questions come back to grab you.) But even as the eight find some mutual interests to bond over (food, movies, etc.) they also discover the deeper matters that keep them at odds. So, to the big question: Is there hope for our country, or not?
Wisely, Williams doesn’t try to answer the questions he poses here, leaving plenty of room for after-show discussion as audience members head home. Director Kate Alexander and her cast deliver dialogue sharply for comic effect, but transition believably to the more dramatic moments. Things come to a head when poor Lisa finally snaps, and who can blame her?
America in One Room is definitely an ensemble piece, and there’s no real need to single out one performer here over another. They all work to inhabit their roles, and to leave you feeling a connection to them and to our national quandary. What’s next for us all? To be continued.
America in One Room continues through Feb. 27; for tickets, call (941) 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org.