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KNOW: Judy Simpson Cook, whose play was spurred by ‘Angels in America’ controversy

Judy Simpson Cook
Judy Simpson Cook

WAXHAW — Unless you’re at least 35, you probably don’t remember the furor over “Angels in America,” where picketers from a local church trudged Tryon Street trying to close Charlotte Repertory Theatre’s show.

Judy Simpson Cook, who’s exactly twice that age, remembers the brouhaha that made national theatrical news in 1996. It set her mind churning and her teeth on edge. She wrote a play titled “Benedictions,” which deals with a Presbyterian minister whose faith gets tested by a personal tragedy at the same time a young gay man desperately needs her counsel.

Cook’s happy that Davidson Community Players will revive the show Feb. 21, in the spot on its roster reserved annually for weightier plays. And she’s a little sad that it’s still timely.

The Waxhaw native notes the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “finally made a decision to give individual churches autonomy to hire a gay preacher, if they wanted one. They talked about it and talked about it and talked it to death.

“In some churches, the issue of gay people isn’t raised any more. But I think any social situation that’s been perceived badly can be perceived ill again. We turn the clock back sometimes.”

The idea for “Benedictions” came to Cook after her mother died in 1994.

“We were attending church again – we’d been heathens and layabouts a long time – and had started to hear all the things Christians believe,” Cook recalls. “Now I was having a crisis of faith, and here came this public discussion (around “Angels”) about whether gay people ought to be allowed in church at all. Those two things came together in my mind.

“Churches studied that play and discussed doubt and grief and gay people’s involvement. And gay people I knew felt something had been touched on that mattered to them.”

Where did the writing experience leave Cook?

“I got to thinking it’s OK to doubt, to wonder what this whole (religious) shebang is about.”

She has generated 12 full-length plays, five one-acts, two one-person shows lasting 45 minutes (one about Andrew Jackson, born somewhere in this neighborhood) and two 10-minute plays, “one of which I think is good and one of which … isn’t. I can usually tell.”

Though she calls “Benedictions” her first drama, much of her work might be classed as “comedy” in the way Shakespeare meant it: Happy endings achieved after danger, turmoil or the possibility of failure: “Something that irritates the dickens out of me, when I write a comedy and feel there’s something meaningful in it, is for an audience member to say, ‘That was so cute.’ Ugggggggh!”

She strikes you in conversation as genteel, though she says, “People would be surprised to learn the air in my house is pretty blue.” It’s hard to believe she stood on the Parkwood High School stage in Monroe in the 1960s and fantasized about the grueling life of a Broadway wannabe.

Instead, she went from Waxhaw to Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., and came to Charlotte, marrying video producer Ron Cook. After job-hopping, she worked for 15 years for the talent agency JTA before quitting in 2000 to become a full-time writer. By then, her work had been produced from Charleston’s Piccolo Spoleto to Charlotte Repertory Theatre.

“I have always been an actor-writer-agent-theatrical producer,” she said in a 2011 interview. “Whether I am writing or not at any moment, I am still a writer. Generally, I get an idea. I have something I want to say or characters to explore. If I start to write too soon, the wind goes out of it. If something nags me to death, nibbling at my brain, it’ll flow. I brood over plays the way a hen does eggs.”

Nowadays, the producer hat stays on her head longer. Storefront Theatre, which she started in 2007 to bring staged readings to Union County, does five shows a season in the sanctuary of Waxhaw Presbyterian Church. She’s proud of the 10-minute play contest that draws 300 submissions from as far away as Mexico, Canada, even India, all for “a $100 prize and the pleasure of knowing we’ve read your play.” (Contest winners will be read March 2-3.)

Cook dubbed the company “Storefront” because she expected to produce shows downtown, in a commercial space, but those proved too expensive. “There’s nothing I hate more than beating the bushes for money,” says Cook, who maintains Storefront through ticket sales, donations and help from the Union County Arts Council.

She has debuted two of her own plays at Storefront in the last two years, but she has gotten a little restless with the genre.

“I would like to try my hand at a novel,” she says. “I’m not as drawn to that type of material – I like telling stories through dialogue – but I hope I have one in me. Something is always stirring in my head.”

‘Benedictions’

WHEN: Feb. 21 through March 10 at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. On Feb. 24, DavidsonLearns will do a pre-show presentation at 12:30, and members of local faith groups will lead a discussion about grief. The playwright hosts a post-show talkback that day.

WHERE: Armour Street Theatre, 307 Armour St., Davidson.

TICKETS: $20 adults, $18 seniors, $15 students.

DETAILS: 704-892-7953 or davidsoncommunityplayers.org.

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