“The first time I wrote a play, I was teaching high-school theater, 25 years ago,” says John Moore, the award-winning former Denver Post theater critic and current senior arts journalist at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. After that came a long hiatus until Brian Freeland, then artistic director of the LIDA Project, decided he wanted to do a series of short plays about guns, and Moore took one on. “It was a fun departure and a good creative-writing enterprise,” he recalls. But Freeland left for New York at the end of 2013, and the project lapsed.
In January, Moore — who’d since taken a buyout from the Post and started working for the DCPA — got a call from Freeland, now with the New York Fringe Festival. “Obama had just had his town hall on guns, and the woman who runs the festival was looking for submissions on the topic,” Moore says. “Brian wanted to know, ‘Did you ever finish that play?’”
“In my head,” he told Freeland, who replied, “Can you finish in three weeks?”
Moore did, and the result was Waiting for Obama. “Last day of April,” he continues, “I got an e-mail saying it was in. Suddenly I had gone from submitting a play to the daunting challenge of having to present it.”
And present it in New York City, at a festival that doesn’t pay. Moore had no trouble getting some of Denver’s finest actors to sign on for the project, and he was determined that they would be fairly compensated. “If I couldn’t raise the money, I wasn’t going to do it,” he says. So he started a fundraising campaign, collecting about $30,000 — half from individual contributions, the rest through crowdfunding.
Waiting for Obama combines realistic elements — an older couple arguing, with the husband insisting he’ll give up his gun only when it’s pried from his cold, dead hands, and his wife trying to soothe him with snacks — with the fantastical: dead people moving restlessly on the roof. There’s also an absurdist twist on the right-wing cliché about Obama “coming for your guns”: Here the president does exactly that.
The play has been workshopped in Denver and Fort Collins, and the actors have helped shape the script, which originally had three possible endings. The process was revelatory for Moore. “There were times when I couldn’t believe I was the person who wrote that; what I had on the page took on such life coming out of the mouth of a living, breathing actor,” he says. “Certainly I discovered that the play is funnier than I thought, and that was really good information. With a subject like this, people might think they’re just in for a screed. I knew I wanted to g ive them a recognizable family you could care about.”
Even from the early rehearsal I witnessed last week, with actors still calling for their lines, it’s clear that the entire cast — Chris Kendall, Leslie O’Carroll, Luke Sorge, Brett Aune, Jessica Robblee and Amelia Corrada — is first-rate. Some of the most exciting moments are provided by Laurence Curry’s uncanny portrayal of Obama; the actor has everything — gestures, vocal intonations — down pat. But his performance goes beyond mimicry. It feels almost as if Curry is channeling the low-key, authoritative presence of the president himself.
“Outside of my own father, there are very few men whose all-around character continues to inspire me,” Curry says. “President Barack Obama is without a doubt one.”
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Still, he has questions. “How do I breathe life into someone who’s seen and heard in the media every day? I am working hard to embody this man’s liquid grace when under assault, his professorial patience,” Curry explains. “I am so thankful to be a part of this production."
The topic of guns is “of interest to everyone in America right now,” Moore observes. “No matter where you stand on the subject, this is happening every day. The bodies are piling up. You’ve got to at least start to talk about it. I am not trying to espouse my own political beliefs; I just wanted the play to be a fair fight.”
Waiting for Obama will get in the ring with five Fringe performances between August 12 and August 15 at the 14th Street Y in New York City. In addition to stimulating talk about guns, Moore is delighted that the play will showcase Denver-area actors in New York. “They’re going to find out just how great this community is,” he concludes.