by Marcina Zaccaria
The debate floor is appropriately aged, with the orange curtains and the enormous IBM Selectric typewriters are set for Confidence (and The Speech), a play about the energy crisis and former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter.
Confidence opened strongly at 42nd Street’s Theatre Row. The production company, Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, offers a feat in cross-dressing, right at the beginning of the play. When chairs are wheeled around, and pulsing lights and soulful music re-sound, we are not certain whether we won’t be witnessing a moment of Saturday Night Fever, mad with 70’s gender ambiguity, tempered with a twinge of 2019 scrutiny. Cynthia Cooper, a female teacher, is transformed into Jimmy Carter; simultaneously, a male student is transformed into his female teacher, Cynthia Cooper.
What unfolds is a mature retelling of the truths of the few weeks after July 4th weekend, 1979. Vignettes with Rosalynn Carter, (portrayed by Sarah Dacey Charles), provide a calm, smooth transition to the cold, unforgiving world of the White House. It’s a world where 75 words per minute typing skills are matched with a need for perfection in policy. The energy crisis, at an all-time height, is debated by Walter Mondale, (skillfully played by Mark Coffin), and other key members of Carter’s staff. OPEC, carbon gas emissions, and energy shortages are all on the table. Their plans will last 40 years, and conclude in 2019.
It makes you think; some of the arguments of the past will leapfrog differently into the present. With wattage, population density, and international regulations on corporations all on the debate floor, it reminds you that there was always much to do. By the late 70’s, gender equality was also a daily debate. Now, in 2019, with an ever-expanding gay rights platform that includes safer spaces for those who cross gender boundaries, the cross-dressing onstage looks calculated, like Elizabethan Shakespeare presented Presidential, 70’s style. Somewhere in the first third of the play, we forget about the peroxide blonde curled wigs on a man, and the fact that Jimmy Carter is portrayed by a Black Woman, Actress April Armstrong.
With cross-dressing accepted as a theatrical device, the imagination is able to leap beyond to attempt to conquer the greater social issues woven nicely into the fabric of the play by Playwright Susan Lambert Hatem. While occasionally light in tone, it is largely delicate and serious. What was consistently engaging were the performances. Director Hannah Ryan chose the right actors, more than confident to conduct the policy debates leading up the Crisis of Confidence speech.
The issues feel so present. At one point, the lights go on in the audience, and the crowd is actually asked if they would like to add a live thought or two for the President. It becomes obvious that that Charlotte’s Off Broadway believes in the rights of Americans to speak and be heard. Though it is a technique that we mostly see in educational settings, it is so gently affirmative that it must be witnessed, seen, and believed. In this way, the production team has really won, not just the six minute sequence, but the right to perform their text truthfully, and in the moment.
At the end of the show, there is video of the actual former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, speaking about the confidence that all Americans will need. The stage immersed with a collage of moving images from the late 70’s, and this retrospective is so well-done by Projection Designer S. Katy Tucker, that it wipes the mind of loss and regret and re-affirms our essential necessity to continue forward.
Confidence (and The Speech) will be performing at Theatre One on Theatre Row, located at 410 West 42nd Street, until December 7.
Run Time: 1hr 40min (no intermission)