Sunday School With a President

Before I started writing my play, Confidence (and The Speech), I decided I needed to go to Sunday School… with a President.

I know people go to Sunday School every week. But I don’t anymore. When I was a child, we went to Sunday School and church every week, but I haven’t been to Sunday School in a… while. As a feminist, I find organized religion challenging — though I know there are many great churches which are also feminist and fabulous. But that’s not the point. The point is I wanted to go to specific Sunday School for a specific reason.

I wanted to see a President.

And not just any President, but one I had admired since childhood. We live in interesting times and we have a few living ex-Presidents. But we have one ex-President that is arguably the BEST ex-President. So, in November of 2014, after a very late flight flying into Atlanta, I got my family up at 4:30 AM and we drove three hours through rural Georgia in driving rain, to Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia.

Did you know that President Carter teaches Sunday School at his church in Plains?

He still does this.

This is the former President of the United States. Anyone can go see him speak about his Presidency, his political service and his faith. For some reason, I find this spectacular. Do you?

I wanted to see him speak. I wanted to see a President. I wanted to see this President, because Carter fascinates me.

We arrived by 8am. The rain had slacked to a drizzle. We parked in a large, gravel parking lot next to a small church. There were Secret Service men and Secret Service dogs. You have to check in outside the small church and have your bag screened.

But it wasn’t intimidating — it was all low-key, very charming and just a bit surreal. NOTE: Apparently, it can be much more crowded than when we went. If you’re going, it’s recommended you go early.

The church and Plains, GA were more unassuming and smaller than I expected. Because it can get busy, it’s recommended you arrive early to assure yourself a seat in the sanctuary. By 5:45am!

We sat in the back row. We got information on what would happen from Miss Jan. Miss Jan is very thorough and explains everything that is expected of you in order for you to “make a picture with the President.” Miss Jan reminds me of all the Tough Southern Ladies I grew up around, who keep everything moving in a super-efficient manner. Those no-nonsense ladies warmed and terrified me.

President Carter came out and spoke. He was gracious. He was humourous. He spoke a lesson of responsibility and told stories of his public service and the work of the Carter Center. It was interesting and inspiring. After the church service, we followed all of Miss Jan’s instructions and we got to “make a picture” with President Carter and Rosalynn Carter.

It was a truly special experience. I already knew I wanted to write a play about President Carter, but this sealed the deal.

We got to make a picture with the President and First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

In preparation for Sunday School with a President, I read up about President Carter, Rosalynn Carter and the Carter administration — a Presidency that I think was vastly underrated. Somewhere in all the books, I read a paragraph about this Crisis of Confidence speech and how Carter disappeared for 10 days to Camp David to write it. And I turned to my husband and was like, “Now, that would make an interesting play. Everyone holed up at Camp David pounding out a speech to try to save America and his Presidency, while America was losing it’s mind at the gas pump.”

My husband had his usual response chambered. I guess I make these statements a lot. Watching a movie, “Hey, this should be a stage musical!” Reading a book about stealing panda babies from China, “You know, someone should make this into a movie!” And he always answers, “You should do that.”

And this time I did. I was producing two other projects (Ty the Pie Guy and Bend in the Road). But I felt the need to write this play. So I started writing what was then called “Solar Panels, Swamp Rabbits and The Speech.”

Read more about President Carter’s Crisis of Confidence Speech.

I am fascinated by President Carter, but also by Rosalynn Carter. They have an enviable relationship. They have just celebrated their 72nd wedding anniversary! They fight disease. And build homes for humanity. And they seem ridiculously happy and cute. I’m impressed by them. I was fascinated to read how hard Rosalynn Carter fought to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed. How tough she is. As a kid, she seemed to be just another very nice, very proper Southern Lady. And proper Southern Lady wasn’t me. The Carters seemed just a bit too saccharine. They seemed too good. Like the Mr. Rodgers of Presidents and First Ladies. It’s difficult to believe — all that willful goodness — right?

As a kid, Hillary Clinton was more my kind of female politician. I still remember watching her get dragged for the “I suppose I could have just stayed home and baked cookies…” line and thinking I understood her and she didn’t deserve the outrage. And for the record — I love cookies. I love baking cookies. I love people who just stay home and bake cookies. I love moms who bake cookies. And dads who bake cookies. And it’s incredibly ridiculous that I have to make it clear that I think cookies are good while also explaining how extra ridiculous it was for people to find insult over personal choice and use it to drag Hillary Clinton. But I digress.

The point was, I never understood Rosalynn Carter. She seemed impossibly proper and deferential. And it was only as an adult, reading about her accomplishments, that I came to realize how tough it was for her to forge her own path to influential political action. Through Jimmy Carter at first and then — as she gained confidence — all on her own, she was a force to be reckoned with. The positions of power that women find themselves in — or don’t — is interesting to me as a writer.

I’m curious about women who have confidence because of their husbands. And about women who just barrel through with a special brand of self-made, “brassy” confidence. And women who struggle to speak up — even if they’re smart enough, even if they want to. And I’m curious — particularly in these times — about what it takes for men and women to hear the call to political action and to step up and do the right thing, despite the risks. In the crisis of confidence speech, Jimmy Carter asked Americans to “Let your voice be heard.”

This play was a way to let my voice be heard. I had something to say about that profound speech. About missed opportunities in American politics. About women and men, equal rights and climate change. It sounds like a lot for a play. But I like crazy interesting, multi-layered plays that have a lot to say. They’re my favorite.

It was a thrill to go to Sunday School with a President. Presidents are special people. Or they should be. And by special, I mean intelligent, smart, decent and thoughtful. Capable of tackling the massive problems that come with being the leader of a country of 325 million diverse people, with the biggest economy and the world’s largest military Capable of treating the responsibility of the Presidency with the honor and confidence it deserves.

In Confidence (and The Speech), I explore the confidence of a President. A nation in chaos. And women in politics. And for a variety of reason, I gender-bend the two lead roles, including President Carter.

The gender-bending makes sense in the context of the play (you can read more about that here) and — I hope— gives us an unique examination of gender roles, power and most importantly to me now more than ever, what it might feel like to have a female President.

When I finished the play, I sent two copies to the Carters. Because I wanted them to know it existed. And because I didn’t want them to hear about the play — and in particular the gender switch — out of context.

Because they are very good… And because they are both very polite… I got very, very nice thank you notes back from both of them. It was a huge thrill.

President Carter is intrigued by the description of my play! I have to say these notes are pretty sweet. 😃

Sunday School with a President started me on a very interesting path in what has become a very tumultuous time in our history. My play was always about history. About looking back with a new perspective in order to move forward. But now it’s a whole new ballgame. Everything is political now. Every moment is an opportunity to speak up and let your voice be heard.

So do it: Go to Sunday School with a President. Run for office. Write that story. Produce that play. Make that movie. Let your voice be heard.

Charlotte’s Off-Broadway is producing the first workshop lab of Confidence (and The Speech) September 6–16 at the Duke Energy Theatre at Spirit Square. We have a fantastic cast and creative team. I’m super excited.

Standing (L to R): Anne Lambert, Max Greger, Nathanial Gillespie, Paul Gibson, Greg Paroff, Josh Logsdon, Susan Lambert Hatem Sitting: Lauren Duckworth, Lane Morris, Josephine Hall, Jonathan Hoskins

First this workshop lab in Charlotte, NC. Then productions in Los Angeles, Atlanta and D.C. Then get it published.

Simple, right? Follow along and let’s see how it goes.

We are at a turning point in our history.”
  • ~Susan Lambert Hatem, August 2018

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