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A new play asks, ‘Is coronavirus Mother Nature’s revenge?’ 

The COVID-19 pandemic caused many theaters to delay or cancel entire seasons of shows. While some are pivoting to translate their performances to streaming shows, a few artists have created brand-new work in response to the pandemic and its impact on our lives. One of those artists is Emmy-nominated playwright Jason Odell Williams, who has frequently collaborated on projects with JCC CenterStage Artistic Director Ralph Meranto. Williams’ new work, “Social Distancing: A World Premiere Monologue Play,” is a one-man show performed by Meranto, which debuted March 22 as a streamable video on JCC CenterStage’s Facebook page.

Clocking in at just over 10 minutes in length, the play is a sort of doomsday scenario blended with a subtler, sci-fi thought-experiment about climate change and the pandemic. In the real world, the Venn diagram of climate change deniers and those who claim the coronavirus is blown out of proportion is not quite a circle, but probably close. Williams’ play positions the pandemic as real, lasting, and as the Earth’s effort to curb humanity’s destructive tendencies.

Viewers of the play become the audience of a video diary that envisions a nearly year-long quarantine in an ongoing pandemic. The solitary character speaks to his virtual viewers about adjusting to mass-isolation, and the evidence that nature has benefitted from humans staying in.

Meranto stars as the nameless vlogger, seen from the shoulders up in casual clothing and against a backdrop of shelves packed with colorful tchotchkes. Going about what we can assume is a daily routine, the vlogger checks the day’s headlines, his asides providing recaps of what’s happened in this imagined, near-distant future of America. Trump has been re-elected, various publications sank or survived, and there’s updates on roving bands of looters. Trader Joe’s is out of these specific staples today. The Canadian and Mexican borders are closed to Americans, because we didn’t properly isolate and have not contained the virus, as others have.

Through hokey asides and winning grins, the vlogger projects a stubborn positivity, explaining that he’s well-adjusted to this new normal — in fact, he’s living his best life. He doesn’t miss going out in public and enduring the messy encumbrances of other people, he claims. His house is clean, he’s staying fit, and, as he dryly tells the webcam, “Frozen food that’s been boiled beyond flavor is kinda my jam now.”

He’s unsinkable until he isn’t. Because this is a video diary, there must be a rant, and the play’s message is disguised within the vlogger’s nagging idea-turned-epiphany that this virus is Earth’s revenge on humans.

Released a month before the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Williams’ play serves as a way to admonish people for not doing enough, without directly lecturing them. He channels his criticism into the speaker’s stream-of-consciousness discussion of his darkest thought — what if the virus is the Earth’s way to self-correct? We’ve been on a collision course with climate change for decades, he explains. We’ve witnessed the human impact as a devastating chain of disasters in the environment, and we talked about what we might do while changing little. We got overwhelmed with the scope of the problem, he says, and we threw our hands up, kicking the responsibility to the next generation while we kicked back and vegged out to “Cheers” reruns.

“We got our wish,” he says. “Millions of us in isolation, with a staggering amount of time suddenly on our hands. Time to reflect and think about ourselves, the world, and this situation. And realize that this would eventually happen.”

The script’s strength comes from its realism in portraying a typical vlogger’s imperfect but impassioned, semi-political rant. At times the monologue becomes a nonsensical, hippie-dip into dramatic raving: he sees the wildfires and other natural disasters as evidence that Earth “was willing to hurt herself to make us take action,” he says. But since we didn’t, “She decided to take more drastic measures and hurt us directly.”

The vlogger oscillates between emphatic frustration with Americans who “can’t seem to grasp the concept of staying the hell away from people,” and his bright-side observation that the mass-isolation has diminished some of humanity’s relentless pollution of the environment, before bleakly concluding that Earth will make itself habitable again by “thinning the herd.”

Even if we don’t commit to the idea that a sentient planet is exacting revenge on a humanity that is itself virus-like, the play makes a solid argument for permanently changing our ways — travelling and consuming less, sharing and helping within our communities, and spending more time sitting still and reflecting — even after the shadow of this experience has lifted.

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INTERVIEW WITH THE PLAYWRIGHT

CITY spoke with Williams, who resides in New York City, about the ideas behind the play and where he sees this all going. An edited version of the conversation follows.

CITY: When did you begin working on this script, and how quickly did it come together?

JASON ODELL WILLIAMS: I reached out to Ralph Meranto when all of this was sort of early stages. March 16 was the first day that I was forced to stay home from work. And I sort of saw the writing on the wall — I work in TV production, and I was like, “Oh, this is gonna last longer.” And I reached out to Ralph like, “Maybe we should use this time to collaborate on something,” and I was thinking of a big play. And he was like, “I'm a little busy for that. But what about just writing a monologue? You should write a monologue about social distancing.”

And so I kind of struggled for a day, and then I think about one day later, I had a draft of basically what you saw. Then he figured out the technical part of it and started promoting it, and did the recording. It was all within a week, it was pretty fast.

Yeah, it was a really rapid response to this. Your work usually contains elements of political and social tension, but this one specifically has an emphasis on environmentalism. Do the play’s ideas resemble your own thinking on the matter?

The crux of the argument was just all of these things that I had been thinking about, myself. This horrible virus that's spreading throughout the world — could it somehow be Mother Nature's way of saying like, “Hey, wake up and smell the coffee, we can't sustain this existence any longer.”

I had the thought, kind of in-passing a couple of times, just as I was walking the dog or in the shower or in quiet moments of contemplation, which you sort of have more of when you aren’t scrambling to go to work and meet deadlines and this and that. It felt like a dark thought. I read an article that had dire projections as to what could happen — we can be looking at millions and millions of deaths across the world.

I just thought, “Oh my God, that's crazy.” And then my next thought was, “I wonder if this is payback for humans stirring up the planet?” And I don't know where that connection came from.

But the next big play that I've been working on since “Church and State” is a play called “The Whole Shebang.” I literally started writing it the day that “Church and State” closed Off-Broadway in 2017, because I saw an article in The New York Times that morning about a girl who walked out of her science class, because that teacher was saying that climate change is real, and humans are largely to blame. And that girl didn't believe that climate change was real. She thought it was a hoax. She was an 18-year-old honors student at a nice public school in Ohio. And she doesn't believe it. And she walked out class saying, “I don't have to listen to this.” And I thought, “That's a fascinating character, and I want to explore who that young girl is.” We all think of young people as being so climate-forward and trying to reverse all of the climate damage. And here this young girl was like, “No, it's a hoax, it's fake.”

And so I've been working on that play for a long time and that idea had been floating in my head. And we were going to do a production. We were planning on doing a reading in May and production in the fall here in New York. And we were kind of learning like, oh, maybe that's not going to happen, or we're going to push things. So that the climate stuff was in my head. I've been thinking about it for a long time.

I'd also read a story about how they took aerial satellite pictures of China in February from 2019, and in February in 2020. And like the air was like, crystal clear in February 2020. There was literally zero pollution in China when they were all knocked down. The same with Italy, like the canals of Venice became clear and less congested. And so it was literally that the Earth was getting a breather. And I was like, oh, it does feel almost like it's not that the Earth is self-correcting, but there is a sort of natural balance to nature. A symbiotic sort of element to how plants and animals and humans all interact. And if one thing gets pulled sort of too far to the left, you know, nature will kind of self-correct and pull it back.

Because of climate change and how global our community is, and how warm the planet is in places, we made conditions really ripe for a virus. And when conditions are ripe, a virus will take hold, it will wipe out parts of the population and things will settle down. Something has to give, and the thing that's having to give right now, is we're all having to stay at home and travel less, and change our consumer habits, and we’re paying a huge, huge cost in terms of hundreds of thousands of lives that have been lost.

So, as sort of dark and darkly comic as that little monologue is, it all comes from a grain of truth. And I think anything that I write I have to believe in some capacity, at least believe one angle of it, to make it make sense.


Do you think that we can ever fully return to the way things were?

I don't know. I think humans are really stubborn, but also really adaptive, which is why I thought it was realistic to me, as a person who is not suffering inconvenience and fully aware of it. It was me writing it and Ralph doing it. So it's like, this is a white guy who has a pretty normal middle-to-upper-middle-class life. So, being told to work from home didn't cripple him economically.
My wife and daughter and I work, we go through stages with days we really hate and days where we're like, “This isn't that bad.” You know, I did the work I had to do and I get to hang out with you guys for part of the day and walk the dog and it just feels like the world's longest weekend sometimes.

I think half of the world will go back to doing exactly what they did before, because that's all they knew for so long. But it depends on how long this lockdown is. I don't think I personally can ever return to a full normal, like I think for a really long time, whenever I get on the subway, I'm just gonna be a little worried. I was always a little bit, you know, a bit germaphobic living in New York. But I think people are going to be even more so, I think masks in public are going to be more normal.

I get a little worried, working in the theater. In the audience you sit elbow-to-elbow with strangers, with people right behind you, right in front of you. When can we do that? Again, I just don't know. I don't know if we can ever return. And that’s a really scary thing.

In some ways, I want things to be able to go back to normal, but I don't want all of it to go back. I would love it if people traveled less commuted less. So you're not driving and flying as much for unnecessary things. Obviously, all that stuff. I think buses and ambulances and fire trucks should be on the roads. But I was like, other than that, I don't miss any of the other cars on the road. So how, how can we strike that balance of what commerce needs to happen? I'm sure there are people much smarter than me thinking about how they're going to change after all this. And there's the politics of it, the economics of it.

I think people have adapted pretty quickly to this. But I can also sense that people are starting to get tired of it, and you can see like, Trump telling people in some parts of the country, “Yeah, let's open America back up, let's go.” Um, it happened in Italy too. They started getting really frustrated towards the end of their lockdowns.


Last week, things really blew up in real life, state-to-state, with the president encouraging people to protest. And there were actually protests in the street that impacted emergency workers being able to get people to the hospitals. So, in a way this play was looking at real life grumblings and sort of predicted what happened over the past week.

I mean, yeah, I guess I don't know. That's just lucky or, I mean, not lucky, luck isn't the right word! But the fact that what was said in the play kind of became a reality, I think it's just, I don't know, me being cynical, or just knowing how America works.

You know, it hit New York first and I was like, “Well it’s coming to the rest of the country, they just don't know it yet. And they're gonna go through the seven stages of grief that we went through and, and they're gonna not want to have to do this. They're not going to believe it because people don't want to believe horrible tragedies. That's why you have climate deniers and Holocaust deniers and Sandy Hook deniers. Honestly, the people that deny these horrible tragedies, I always think it's because they just don't want to believe that kind of badness can happen. And they don't want to believe it can happen to them. So they just go, “Well, you made it up.” And it's literally the way they can let their brain off the hook.

And so, there are people who think this virus is totally overblown and it’s “fake news.” And they think “I can just walk around, I feel fine, I feel healthy, what's the big deal?” And I just knew that that's where Americans are. I'd say the majority of us are really, really selfish. And I just kind of saw that that's the way it was gonna go, especially with this president who was not going to place caution before action. He was just gonna speak from the hip and be more worried about the economy and his reelection hopes than he is about saving the lives of people he can’t see or feel.

So I just kind of knew that that was going to happen, I guess I feel just sadly dark and cynical about us. And I feel like a lot of other countries seem to get this right with the exact same information. It's not like South Korea had an early scoop on something, you know, all the scientists were getting the same data or had access to it. They were just smarter about how they mitigated it. Germany too, and some other European countries were just better and some of these Scandinavian countries, they're still just as dense in places but their people have more of a greater-good philosophy. They understand, “This is hard for me, but I know that it's better for everybody if I do this.” Like a wartime mentality, rationing food and staying home and doing what's better for your neighbor than for you. And I was like, “America just doesn't turn around. Nothing like that. So it's gonna hit the fan here pretty bad.”

There's been some frustration, here in the Rochester community specifically, but also elsewhere, where people are trying to do the right thing and they feel thwarted by some pundits in town who are encouraging people to do the wrong thing.

I feel like at least in New York State we have Governor Cuomo leading the way, doing a great job, although I think most of the governors are doing a good job. And we just are getting this bad information from Washington. And that's the troubling thing, because America is so big. And that's also what's hard about, you know, corralling this invisible enemy, right? It's like, if I lived in a really small town in Idaho, I'd be like, “Why do I need to stay at home? This is stupid.” And so I get that those people locally don't feel it as much, but I just really worry about — not New York and Los Angeles because I think we've gone through it and we're sort of figuring out how to do it — but like, Milwaukee and Atlanta and St. Louis and Baltimore, the medium sized cities, where people in the suburbs probably think “This is fine, I'm totally cool.” And they're going to go out and go to grocery stores and movie theaters and this and that, and just mess it up for all the people that are in, you know, the bigger cities.

And that's where I think you're going to see that second wave, in those medium sized cities across the country. And that's when you need somebody like the president to say, “Hang on guys. You know, New York is beyond the plateau. But that means you guys, everyone else is just two or three weeks behind and it's coming, and you just need to be patient.”

So that's what I worry about. Because the country is so big, it's all going to happen in a never-ending wave. I feel like we're in this for a much longer haul than anybody imagined when it first happened. The first week I stayed home from work, they called us and said, “We're definitely shut down for two weeks.” And I got off the phone and turned to my wife, and I was like, “I'm not going back ‘til September. I just know they're not going to reopen anything until September.” I just had this bad feeling. So we'll see. Maybe some little things will open up in June and July, but I don't know. It’s unprecedented, unlike anything we've ever had to deal with. There's definitely a lot of arguments for erring on the side of caution.

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