A back room at North Carolina State University is the setting of the production “Church and State,” directed by senior communication and theatre major Kyle Jeanor that ran on Dec. 3 and 4. The play is written by actor and playwright Jason Odell Williams and centers around a North Carolina Republican U.S. senator three days before his running for re-election. The primary focus is on a comment the senator made to a blogger questioning God’s relevance in the aftermath of a school shooting at his children’s school, according to UIndy Events.
The show starred junior public health major Randy Craig as Senator Charles Whitmore, the conservative senator questioning his faith in the wake of his children’s school shooting. Sarah Whitmore, Charles’ devout Christian wife who tries to steer the senator towards the direction of the faith he ran on in the previous election, was played by senior theatre major Audrey Panyard and senior theatre and communication major Kielynn Tally played Alex Klein, the liberal Jewish campaign manager for the senator who is focused on getting him reelected after his comment was put on Twitter.
According to Jeanor, the play discusses the connection between religion, gun violence and politics and what should or should not be said. The play begins with Senator Whitmore breaking the news to his wife and his campaign manager of a comment he made to a blogger at the funeral of the victims of the shooting at his kids’ school that killed 29 people.
“It’s kind of a show about going back and forth about what he should go out and say during the speech three days before he’s going to get elected. And eventually he goes out there,” Jeanor said. “… He rips up the original prepared statement, he gives a very impassioned speech about what he thinks should happen. And the people of North Carolina re-elect him, which is really fantastic.”
According to Craig, Jeanor had chosen the play for his senior capstone project and beforehand had the cast read over some other options before everyone landed on “Church and State.” Craig said his character creates a sort of love-hate dynamic with the audience, with Whitmore displaying qualities of a good person and at points creating frustration with his actions.
“It’s very much like, you love to hate him, but you hate to love him kind of thing, because he’s just so complex,” Craig said. “But overall, I think that Charles has a good heart and is a good person regardless of what the reporters would say on Twitter.”
Tally said during the beginning of the production process, the playwright’s goal was mentioned for the show. Playwrights often write shows to be relevant forever, she said. However, Williams wrote the play to one day be irrelevant in the hope that society grows past school shootings, according to Tally.
“I think that was one of the more important factors in choosing this play, which was a good realization for myself. Being able to kind of notate in my mind that this shouldn’t be normal,” Tally said. “This shouldn’t be an everyday thing that we deal with. Just seeing the Michigan shooting and being like, ‘another one,’ That shouldn’t be the reaction that we have. So this play kind of addresses that and how we shouldn’t be so desensitized from all of this because of how often it happens.”
According to Jeanor, the show ends with the senator getting shot after his re-election when he makes his acceptance speech. This leads his wife to assume his position and get voted in as senator where a proposed gun control amendment is made to Congress called the Whitmore Amendment. At the end of the show, while the vote is being shown in the background, the senator is shown giving his speech that won him his re-election.
Jeanor said he dedicated this production to two students specifically; Nick Dworet, who had committed to swim at UIndy with the freshman class of 2022 and passed away in the Parkland mass shooting, and Koebe Clopton, a UIndy student who passed away due to gun violence earlier this year. According to the program, the play was also dedicated to victims of gun violence from Virginia Tech, Tucson, Newtown, Columbine, Aurora, Charleston, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Parkland and those who suffer namelessly every day. Whitmore’s speech in the play included the names of schools listed in the program dedication.
“I think it’s very important that we remember when you’re looking at this fictitious senator, fictitious senator’s wife, to remember that this is something that happens in our lives,” Jeanor said. “And that was kind of I think, the reminder of it for me, if I ever questioned what I was doing, I just thought about them.”