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The North Raleigh Arts & Creative Theatre has taken on a play by Jason Odell Williams that is sure to stir controversy. That's specifically why Church and State was written. Williams has created a play that strikes the perfect chord: it is highly adaptive; it is highly inflammatory; it is compact, both in time and cast; and it is easily staged, requiring only a small set and minimal costume changes.
While Church and State was written by a Manhattan-based playwright, developed for the stage in California, and has already had its Off-Broadway premiere, the work is written so that each individual theatre company may adapt it to local politics. As the name implies, the work examines the difficulty extant when one attempts to circumvent the Founding Fathers' intent to keep religion out of politics.
This is what makes the play so inflammatory. What happens in Church and State, if one has studied the politics of the Right, would never happen in real life. At least, not if the Republican Party had anything to say about it. But the events set down in this production might very well happen. Sooner or later, the epidemic of gun violence in this country is going to hit very close to home for some particular politician whose stance on gun control has always been "hands off," and that individual will probably – hopefully – understand that his stance on guns must be reexamined.
That's what happens to Senator Charles Whitmore, the junior senator from North Carolina, when the violence in our schools strikes the very school where his two young boys are students. While the Whitmore sons are not involved in the actual event, two children of a family who are close friends of the Whitmores are killed. That family, along with the Whitmores as support, bury their two sons the day before Charles is scheduled to deliver a major speech in his home town of Raleigh, announcing his intent to run for a second term.
We witness none of the above, but it is brought out by Charles himself (Brian Yandle), as he has a very heated discussion in the green room of Stewart Theatre on the NCSU campus, with his wife, Sara (Melanie Simmons), and his campaign manager, Alex (Liz Webb). Charles has chosen this small, out-of-the-way room in the catacombs of Stewart Theatre to give himself a moment to think. He's afraid he cannot go out to the standing-room-only crowd upstairs and deliver his usual right wing stump speech. He relates to Sara and Alex the event that took place during the funeral yesterday of his friends' two boys: Marshall (Christian O'Neal), a very conservative, religion-based blogger cornered Charles at the funeral and tried to interview him, but watching his friends bury their children rattled Charles badly. When Marshall asked Charles if he turned to prayer in his "time of need," Charles exploded. He told Marshall that it is very difficult to pray to a God that would let this happen; that it is, in point of actual fact, difficult to believe in such a God. As both Sara and Alex are immediately aware, this is not good. It is three minutes until Charles is to go before thousands of people and announce his candidacy for re-election on the God and Country platform, the platform that got him elected in the first place, and suddenly Charles is questioning his own faith? Sara is horror-struck. Sara is as devout as they come, and she sees this situation for what it really is: a major all-hands-on-deck crisis, for both Charles' career and marriage, when it comes to that. This is not the man she married, it is not the man who reared two sons with her, and it is definitely not the man to get himself re-elected – and, quite frankly, that has a bearing on the relationship, as well.
Alex, as well, sees this as a crisis, but while she sides with Sara on the debate, hers is a strictly political concern. She advises this is not the time for the senator to try and change his stripes. She says the platform of God, Guns, and Glory got him elected and it's the platform that's going to get him re-elected. If he goes out there to tell them that everything they believe in – and everything they believe he believes in – is suspect, then they're going to disappear in droves. Alex says he can kiss his re-election, White House aspirations, and very likely his family good-bye.
You can see why any NC Republican politician or office holder would flatly tell you this cannot happen. The guns plank of the Republican platform in North Carolina is one of the major support planks of the local and the national Party; any man who suddenly decided that both God and guns need to be reexamined would be committing political suicide. Nevertheless, this is where Charles is, and he must make a decision on how to respond.
Church and State is perfect for sparking debate on hot-button local contemporary politics; it is dynamic, in that we see in this microcosm of God in all things, especially God in politics and, most especially, God in the family – a new way of looking at things. Charles discovers that he can no longer sit back and let the next tragedy happen; that it is incumbent on him to do something about it. And he does. Because, for the first time, he knows it is the right thing to do. Director Yvonne Anderson tells us in her program notes that this is a crackling good story, one a person wants to return to again and again, because it makes you think. It makes you wonder if maybe one person can make a difference. And it ought to make you wonder if maybe that person is you.
There is more to this play than just a debate over God, guns, and the Republican Party. But that is something you should witness firsthand. How does Charles actually do the things he wants to do now? And is he going to be allowed to do it in the face of the RNC? Check out NRACT's Church and State, and see how playwright Williams, and this fine ensemble cast, answer those questions.
Church and State continues through Sunday, May 12. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.