Local Arts

‘Confidence’ asks us to look at gender, power and presidential politics

Anne Lambert talks with Berry Newkirk and Paul Gibson in rehearsal.
Anne Lambert talks with Berry Newkirk and Paul Gibson in rehearsal. Lyric Photography for Charlotte’s Off-Broadway

Actors trickle into the rehearsal room at shared workspace Advent Coworking on a stormy Wednesday evening. Director Anne Lambert hands each a script. It’s five days before the end of a Kickstarter campaign to raise the final $5,000 of the $20,000 needed to produce “Confidence (and The Speech),” a play written by Lambert’s sister, Susan Lambert Hatem. The cast will rehearse for four hours a day, five days a week, for four weeks.

This is the second collaborative production between the sisters, who hail from Georgia, and now live on opposite sides of the country. Lambert, 53, is an actor and producer. Hatem, 51, is immersed in storytelling. Lambert has long been artistically curious about gender. Susan wrote a play that showcases gender bending. It’s a natural fit.

The play’s epicenter is a 1979 speech given by President Jimmy Carter that came to be known as “The Crisis of Confidence Speech.”

“It gets talked about every year,” says Hatem. “It’s almost a sermon, about the need to reinvest in the soul of America, and who we are as citizens.”

This historic reimagining includes a modern-day twist. When a young man queries a college professor about her experience 40 years ago in the Carter administration, she agrees to share her story with him on one condition. In the retelling of her tale, she will play the role of President Carter, while the inquiring young man will play her role as a young woman in the White House.

“The gender bending will be magical, and it will involve panty hose,” says Lambert. “Susan wanted to say something very specific about women in politics.”

Inspired by “West Wing” and “Hamilton,” Hatem intends to showcase history through a captivating dramatic lens. “It felt like a fun, historical play, and it turned more political after 2016,” she says. She hopes people of all ideological stripes will attend. “Politics is not separate from us,” she says. She interprets Carter’s speech as a bipartisan call to action.

While the play explores serious subjects, it retains a sense of whimsy. “It’s fun to imagine a woman president. It’s fun to watch a young man walk in a woman’s shoes in the 1970s.” When a speech delivered by a powerful man is reimagined through the countenance of a young woman, the dynamics metamorphize. “There is a lovely thing that can happen in theater, where the performance of the story can be as informative as the story itself,” says Hatem.

Hatem defines “Confidence (and the Speech)” as a workshop production because it will be tweaked during its run. The closing night script may differ from the one presented on opening night, depending on audience reaction. The play was a semi-finalist for the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference.

The sisters grew up in Decatur, Georgia, and say they were exposed early and often to theater via their father, Victor, who produced, directed and acted. Lambert acted too, while Hatem spent a lot of time in the audience where she “silently judged everyone,” she says with a laugh. Hatem graduated from USC Film School in Los Angeles, and her production company is 143 West out of Hollywood.

After earning a B.A. in English and Drama from Davidson College, Lambert went to Japan on a Watson Fellowship, where she studied the all-male Kabuki theater, and the all-female Takarazuka Revue. “I was really interested in traditions where people played genders they were not born into,” she says. “What did you do with your makeup? How did you walk and speak? That is a fascinating part of acting for me.”

Lambert has been a consistent player in Charlotte’s theater scene since 1998, when she co-founded the all-female Chickspeare with Sheila Snow and Lolly Foy. She cultivated the Off-Broadway brand to provide herself with more opportunities to direct and act. “I feel sad when I am not doing work,” she says. Her first production under its banner was for CityStage Festival in 2004. Since then, its fringe productions include “Rapture Blister Burn,” “Matt & Ben,” and “I’ll Eat You Last.”

She credits the rent waiver program sponsored by Blumenthal Performing Arts Center for enabling independent producers to use the Duke Energy Theatre at a reduced rate. Her goal is to develop a rehearsal and performance space, under a coworking model, that she could share with other independent theater producers.

The sisters turned to crowdfunding to raise the final piece of their budget. “It’s an interesting, fun way to use the global community to allow people to join in,” says Hatem. By campaign’s end, 71 backers had pledged $6,092, topping the goal handily.

After the Sept. 13 performance, political consultant Aisha Dew will facilitate a talkback with the cast and local politicians who are women. “Susan has imagined what a woman president looks like,” says Lambert. “Carter was the first to use equity as a component of a presidency. That’s why it is a timely script.”

If there is an agenda to the play it is that “we are missing some voices in the room,” says Hatem. “And everyone needs to have a seat at the table.”

‘Confidence (and The Speech)’

The play, from Charlotte’s Off-Broadway and 134 West, runs Sept. 7, 8, 13, 14 and 15 at Duke Energy Theatre at Spirit Square. Tickets are $25 in advance, $32 at the door. Details: www.blumenthalarts.org/events-performances/coming-performances/detail/confidence-and-the-speech.