In the recent midterm elections, over one hundred women were elected to Congress, many being first-timers who defeated long-time, often white-male incumbents. Most ran with a promise to shake up the ol’ boys’ systems and to do some major housecleaning. Common among their pledges were ones like Sydney Millsap’s, “I can do this because I will have my employer by my side, that’s you [i.e., my constituents].”
Former accountant and newly elected Congresswoman from the 24th District of Texas, Sydney Millsap, makes now bones whom she works for and for whom she does not, looking point-blankly at a pushy lobbyist in the eye and declaring, “I don’t want to be told what to do by a finance lobbyist.” Sydney has arrived in D.C. with full intent “to work on policy that really matters.” But in Sarah Burgess Kings – a new play so contemporary it feels like a feature story from this past Sunday’s Times – Sydney is finding what maybe most of the actual one-hundred-plus women now on Capital Hill are finding: There is an industry of entrepreneurial, competitive, money-hungry lobbyists who have other plans on what she will and will not support. And no matter how much she tries to ignore them, she begins to understand that the existence of lobbyists are not unlike that of the roaches of the world . As one such go-getter tells Sydney, “[L]ong after you are voted out of office, I will still be here.”
Shotgun Players is currently staging a gripping, thought-provoking, even unsettling production of Kings, with a unstated warning clearly coming at us loudly that many of those newly elected, pledged-to-be reformers in D.C. may already be in trouble. How many of them have heard at every turn from glad-handing lobbyists as does Sydney, “You are one of the most exciting new members of Congress” – said in an automated tone and with a plastered smile that belies any true sincerity? Can you doubt that most of them, like Sydney, began their tenures looking those same, initial lobbyists in the eye and responding to the so-called compliment with tired exasperation, “So tell me what you want … I am sure there’s something you want from me.” Haven’t they also heard the same advice given with a hand on the shoulder and a serious look of supposed concern that Sydney hears over and again, “Say you cannot support the bill now because the bill did not go far enough”? But the question rises, six months past their elections, how many will continue to resist the promised checks in their now-empty re-election kiddies – money that will flow if they will only take a meeting with the podiatrists’ lobbyist or maybe give in to one small request from some super PAC who can offer millions of marketing and social media support?
All any one of them needs to do – just as Syndey has been asked – is back off support of ‘x’ bill or sign on to support of ‘y’ bill. After all, more-seasoned, well-loved, long-tenured politicians – like Sydney’s home-state Senator John McDowell –have no trouble helping out their favorite lobbyists and their new get-on-board colleagues, as McDowell promises to do for Sydney if she will just back-off a bill with his favorite “It does not go far enough” line.
But can enough of these newly elected in D.C. do as Sydney does and say no? Or will they find standing up to the inbred lobbyists and money-hungry leaders of their party will lead – as it soon does for Sydney – to their also finding that D.C. marketing firms will not return their calls, that the Party will decide to run someone against them in the next primary, and that social-media smear campaigns will begin to multiply about them and/or family members, paid for by anonymous super-donors to powerful PAC committees. All becomes the brutal battlefield for a gritty, determined, and not-willing-to-compromise-her-integrity Congresswoman Sydney Millsap.
So powerful and persuasive is Sam Jackson in the role of Sydney Millsap that had she stood at the door to solicit exiting audience members to sign her petition to run for a future political office, I cannot believe any one of us would have turned her down. With her wonderfully attractive, Texas flow of just enough drawl to notice but not repel, her Sydney also speaks with an air of business, of conviction, and of no-patience-for-fools. When approached by the big-smiling lobbyists, her edgy tone cuts immediately their non-genuineness to smithereens, with looks of near disgust as she shows her disbelief that they actually think she will take them seriously.
There is not a vulnerable inch in her thick-skinned armor, no matter how many times the lobbyists try to convince her that a “make-your-own-s’mores” event with other lobbyists “is a part of your job.” But if a lobbyist is willing to meet her on her own ground – say a Washington Belt location of Dallas’s own Chili’s – then that armor can in fact loosen a bit over a swimming-pool size margarita and a sizzling skillet of Texas fajitas. But even in Chili’s with a margarita in hand, Sydney has no trouble walking away from compromising her values and even subsequently losing votes. With a look that sends shivers down the spines of even us in the audience, Sydney leaves sure money and powerful support on the table that she knows is corrupt, willing to tell one stunned lobbyist, “You can eat there alone and people can think ‘What a sad woman’ … and they will be right.” Sam Jackson and her Sydney Millsap are a winning ticket, no matter how the next vote count comes out.
Totally impressive are also those who fast become her adversaries. Sarah Mitchell is Lauren, a high-paid, much-sought-after, financial lobbyist who absolutely has no time or regard for the freshman congresswoman once she sees she cannot be bought. Icily she greets Sydney at one point with “Lots of buzz about you and I can see why,” with double meanings clearly projected in her piercing look and abrupt turn of the shoulders to exit hauntingly. Lauren has her future banked on Texas Senator McDowell, receiving from her lobbying firm $100K every year he stays in office and just waiting for a possible White House appointment when he – as favorite to take the next presidential election – wins office. The ire with which she explodes when all of a sudden this upstart from the 24th District begins to thwart her much-deserved destiny is an impressive, scary conflagration of immense heat and embers to behold.
|Elissa Beth Stebbins|
More intrigued of Congresswoman Millsap (but still highly skeptical) is up-and-coming health industry lobbyist, Kate. Elissa Beth Stebbins’ Kate shows no backing down in taking on Sydney point-by-point in back-and-forth arguing about how Washington works and what is acceptable and necessary for its machinery to operate. But less caustic and dismissive than her friend Lauren, Kate clearly shows some intrigue and maybe even some respect for this newcomer to whom she still has no problem saying things like “You’re a weird person” and “You have a messiah complex.” And while she cannot go everywhere that Sydney wants her to go just as Sydney will not do much of what Kate advises, the effect that Sydney has on Kate is a climatic moment that brings hope that out of ashes of defeat in Sarah Burgess’ script that real change can perhaps actually happen in Washington, at least one person at a time.
Don Wood captures so convincingly the ‘good, ol’ boy’ politician we are all so used to seeing on our TV screens and now social media videos. Senator John McDowell has that down-home, Southern drawl that makes him sound like he is much more common folk than of course he really is. His smile and ingratiating way of always remembering everyone’s name and to ask about the kid whose name he also somehow recalls is only a happy-face mask of the underlying fierce, ego-centered fighter he really is. It is that glaring-eyed, fisted persona who has no problem shouting down once he feels personally betrayed by a long-time supporter he has championed for years with, “You were too stupid to pull it off … Get out of my sight”.
Joanie McBrien directs this cast of four with a clear desire to take Sarah Burgess’ timely script and to engage us as audience in a way that hopefully causes each member to ask, “What is my responsibility to ensure Sydney’s experience is not the outcome of all those newly elected women in Congress?” There is a sense of urgency the director has instilled in the atmosphere of the play and an urging that “kings” is no longer the acceptable moniker for those who rule the D.C. scene.
The Director is supported by an exceptional production team that ensures the words of the script and the power of the actors are the main show of the two hours of the several tense scenes we have the privilege to witness. Angrette McCloskey’s set design has a modernist and minimalist feel that is heavily enhanced by the multi-walled, multi-angled projections of Erin Gilley, the sometimes comic-relief props of Devon LaBelle, and the dramatic lighting highlights of Chris Lundahl. James Ard’s sound design brings effects to enhance the right-now timing and the realism of each scene while Miyuki Bierlein’s costumes take the unique mannerisms of each character and translates them in what is worn head to toe.
Shotgun Players’ production of Sarah Burgess’ Kings is nothing less than a ‘must-see.’ Performances are each memorable, with Sam Jackson’s Sydney Millsap particularly worth the price of the ticket. The play feels as if it had to be written only last week, so timely it is. Hopefully, Kings is a play that will be produced coast-to-coast on many regional stages between now and November 2020 when the real Sydney Millsaps of D.C. will need all of us to step forward and ensure their fights to resist the siren calls of lobbyists and to ‘work on policy that matters’ continues to be rewarded at the ballot boxes of America.
Rating: 5 E, “Must-See”
Kings continues through June 16, 2019 at the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley. Tickets are available at https://shotgunplayers.org/ or by calling 510-841-6500.
Photos by Ben Krantz
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