CHURCH & STATE at Ujima: a contemporary play about guns, politics, and religion

THE BASICS:  CHURCH & STATE, a 2016 play by Jason Odell Williams, directed by Ross Hewitt, starring John Kreuzer, Sabrina Kahwaty, Rachael Jamison (with Vincent DeStefano in a number of utility roles, often comic), presented by Ujima Company, runs through October 2, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 4.  Lorna C. Hill Theater at Ujima Theatre Company 429 Plymouth Avenue Buffalo, New York 14213 (716) 281-0092.  Real, full color printed programs are handed out along with “Re-elect Senator Charles Whitmore” campaign buttons.

Runtime: 90 minutes, no intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  (adapted from the playwright’s website)

In the wake of a school shooting in his hometown of Raleigh, NC, a Republican U.S. senator makes an off-the-cuff comment to a blogger that calls into question the senator’s stance on gun control and his belief in God– three days before his bid for re-election.  As his devoutly Christian wife and liberal Jewish campaign manager try to contain the damage, CHURCH & STATE looks at how religion, guns, and social media influence our political system.

Photo by RCM Photography

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  This is one intense small cast play, the type at which Ujima excels.  It’s timely, hard-hitting, with moments of great hilarity contrasted with moments of horrific reality.  I’m thinking of their recent offerings of SMART PEOPLE, about how even smart people have trouble coming to grips with race in America, and AMERICAN SON about a black son’s encounter with the police, and PIPELINE about the “school-to-prison pipeline” that affects so many young black men.  (Click on the titles mentioned to read my reviews of those three plays).

Photo by RCM Photography

This is a “crisis of conscience” play in which the protagonist, Senator Charles Whitmore, must choose between his own beliefs versus the socially acceptable or politically expedient.  And of course, it’s complicated.  If the Senator keeps quiet now, he might get six years in the U.S. Senate to convince his fellow senators to effect real change, but only if he’s re-elected.  

Although there’s a lot of talk about God, this is not a theological play.  Great minds through the centuries have dealt with the question of how God and evil can co-exist.  The senator’s simplistic response is that they can’t.  If evil is real, and he’s seen with his own eyes the results of evil in the classroom after the shooting, then God can’t exist.  

Once again I was struck by the immediacy of Ujima productions.  In the new Lorna Hill theater space, there is no raised stage.  The actors are right there, just a few feet away.  Upon entering the theater, when the usher hands you a campaign button and says “you’re part of the play” it doesn’t mean that there’s audience participation in the traditional sense of breaking the fourth wall.  To me, it meant that at Ujima that fourth wall between those of us in the audience and those on stage becomes so thin that you are more like a fly on the wall.  You ARE in the room where it happens.

So what about that room?  The set and props by Dylan Regan and Brian Brown are minimal but spot-on, including some MAGA-style red hats on a table, a campaign poster declaring “Jesus is my running mate,” a craft table of unappetizing snacks (but plenty of “Sweet Tea”), and a cheesy couch facing the audience.

What made the play become so real for me however was not the set, nor the excellent performances by both John Kreuzer as the senator nor Sabrina Kahwaty as the campaign manager.  It was the performance of Rachael Jamison as Sara Whitmore, the senator’s wife, trying to be the anchor in the stormy sea of politics and not always succeeding.  

That role reminded me so much of the pastor’s wife in the Lucas Hnath play THE CHRISTIANS which I saw several years back at Road Less Traveled Productions (and also at Chautauqua) in which a pastor at a “Megachurch” sermonizes that there is no such thing as Hell, and that a God who truly loves us will accept all into Heaven.  Even non-believers.  Even Hitler.  Not all in the congregation are ready to accept this message and the pastor’s wife (played at RLTP by Lisa Vitrano) sees his career go off the rails.  

Here at Ujima in CHURCH & STATE Jamison’s every gesture, every look, every change in the tone of voice, and every interaction with the other characters was just… so… real.  

I highly recommend this play. 

Random Thoughts:  After the show, I had the occasion to speak with Brian Brown, Ujima’s Managing Director, and asked him, given that Ujima’s Mission Statement tells us that their “primary purpose is the preservation, perpetuation, and performance of African American theatre” why they opened with a show featuring four white actors.  

After mentioning May 14, his response was an echo of what Interim Artistic Director Sarah Norat-Phillips has on the company’s website regarding the 2022/2023 season.  She writes: “At Ujima we strive to choose work that speaks to and for the community, gives voice to those who all too often go unheard, and sheds light on issues that need to be examined. I selected each of these projects with those tenets in mind and I am hopeful that when our audience chooses Ujima they will continue to find food for the mind, body, and soul.”  

CHURCH & STATE speaks to and for the community regardless of the color of the actors.  It’s a powerful show.  And again, I highly recommend it.

Rating:  Five Buffalos

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

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