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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Why playwright Justin Richards chose to write an Obama play

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If every review of a play gave four stars, writers would become slaves to their reviews. You know how it is, especially for critics who love to write about plays. And that is certainly the case with first-time playwright Justin Richards. Almost all of his plays thus far have been about queens.

His one-man show, 45 Plays, is no exception, focusing his ribald wit on 116 pages of texts from Michelle Obama’s 2005 memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” a few of which may sound familiar. But if you care about behind-the-scenes gossip about the Obamas and the Clintons, this is the show for you.

Other bits are new. A bit that dates back to the 2016 presidential campaign — “The morning of the Iowa caucus, a reporter arrived at the house on the south side to interview me and the president” — sounds like an excerpt from Mark Halperin’s book, “Double Down.” After the show, Richards spoke to me about the piece and who it was based on. “It was kind of like a game: Give me the scoop on the Clinton campaign,” he told me, “and I’ll come up with something funny to go with it.”

“This is a whole other book,” he said, “and I really don’t need to do that again.”

The offering is set in one room of the Clintons’ house in Chappaqua, New York. In this jukebox musical, each person who inhabits a play is played by a different actor, and the multiple actresses come and go in the audience at selected intervals.

But are the different actors playing the same roles in each play? “I have a basic knowledge of their biographies,” he said, “but it depends on who you talk to.”

So what about his co-stars? He declined to identify them. “I think you should have seen the show,” he said. “The bit you have now wouldn’t have happened. They’re all good actors and fun to be around.” He added, “I wanted them to be able to go home at night and have guests drop by.”

He was thinking, of course, of those famous guests. “These days,” he told me, “a lot of people want to be pictured with famous people.”

The piece, he said, was inspired in part by “The Black Box” and the Jake Gyllenhaal drama, “Southpaw,” both of which were produced at Off Broadway’s Primary Stages. “In both of those plays, you see the power relationships between the black actors and white actors,” he said. “I had lots of conversations about these issues of race — actors of color and white actors — and I wondered: What happens when actors of color and white actors aren’t seen as equals?”

Why play the Clintons, he told me, “had been on my mind, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t want to write it for Hillary [Clinton] or her husband.” He also wanted to write about a president, and a playwright is forced to choose a heroine from history. “When I think of the Clintons, I think of Bill Clinton,” he said.

Once he was familiar with the material from Obama’s book, he began to get to know the Obamas. “It’s fascinating,” he said. “I really enjoyed meeting Michelle.”

Where did he discuss politics with her? “I wouldn’t say that,” he said.

Did he avoid writing sketches about the wars or Trump? “I haven’t written a lot about the wars,” he said. “Actually,” he added, “I’m a big fan of Trump.”

That, it seems, is the goal: fuel the fire of interest. “I’m a news junkie,” he said. “I want it to be entertaining, and also educate people, and call attention to the news.”

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