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Playwright Susan Lambert Hatem talks about her unconventional political history play
A young man wants to know how it really went down in "the room where it happened." No, it's not a scene from Hamilton; it's from Susan Lambert Hatem's play Confidence (and The Speech), currently running at Theatre Row. Like Lin-Manuel Miranda's smash-hit musical, Confidence (and The Speech) is concerned with who gets to call the shots in American politics and how we learn that history. Also like Hamilton, it employs nontraditional casting, with an African-American woman embodying Jimmy Carter during a pivotal episode in his presidency.
April Armstrong plays Cynthia Cooper, a fictional university professor. Back in 1979, Cynthia was a White House intern who ended up at Camp David with Carter and his closest advisers. As she tells the story of what she saw and did 40 years ago, she puts herself in the role of the peanut farmer-turned-POTUS. Meanwhile, her audience of one, a white man named Jonathan (Zach Fifer), becomes young Cynthia, complete with high heels and a demure dress. He soon learns how it feels to be either underestimated or ogled by the most influential men in Washington.
For playwright Hatem, this cross-gender, cross-racial casting isn't a gimmick; it's a way to illuminate the life and times of a man she calls "the first feminist president." In early presentations of the play, Cynthia was portrayed by white actresses. But Hatem decided she wanted to make an even bolder statement. "We really wanted it to be a person of color, because Carter is from the Deep South," she says. "But we also needed to find the actress that was going to be able to do that transformation. April is doing a phenomenal job."
Mounted by an all-women creative team, the play focuses on a ten-day period in July 1979, when Carter decided to scrap a planned address on energy policy in favor of delivering his "Crisis of Confidence" speech -- a warning to the American people that the nation was heading in a dangerous direction. Some pundits have suggested his sermon alienated voters and cost him reelection. But the play isn't just about the president; it's Cynthia's tale, too. Despite her intelligence and passion for public service, young Cynthia feels out of place among the mostly white, mostly male members of Carter's inner circle. Even the encouragement of presidential assistant Sarah Weddington (Abigail Ludrof) and First Lady Rosalynn Carter (Sarah Dacey Charles) can't stop her from feeling otherized. Hatem says Cynthia serves as a symbol for all "the unknown women that don't normally get their stories written."
Hatem, who's a Georgia native just like the 39th president, has been fascinated by Jimmy Carter since she was a child. "I started to reexamine his presidency as an adult," she says. "A few years ago, I went down to Plains" -- the Carters' hometown -- "and saw him teach Sunday school." That's when she realized she wanted to write a play about him. She had nearly completed the first draft when Trump was elected president over Hillary Clinton. Initially Hatem was so devastated by the outcome she recalls thinking, "I don't even know what this play means anymore, so I kind of put it in a drawer. Then in January the Women's March happened, and I thought, there is something to say with this piece."
While Hatem has enjoyed a long career in entertainment as a journalist and a digital producer, notably as the director of creative content for Walt Disney Studios, Confidence (and The Speech) is her first full-length work for the theatre. It's clearly a labor of love and a tribute to the legacy of President Carter, who since leaving office has continued to advocate for racial justice, gender equality and human rights.
"I really feel like I have a different perspective than everyone else who's written about this time or this administration or this speech," Hatem says. Yet she did worry that the Carters might "hear about this play and think that it's a joke." So she sent copies of the script to both of them before ever putting it on stage. "I actually got thank-you notes back from both Rosalynn and Jimmy, though I don't know if they read it," she admits. On the off chance that they're reading this, Hatem says they're welcome at the show anytime.
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: April Armstrong in Confidence (and the Speech). Photos by Russ Rowland.