Vanessa Williams, Rachel Dratch, Lea DeLaria star in POTUS on Broadway Seven comic actresses star in a new play by a 28-year-old up-and-coming playwright.

Broadway's 'POTUS': Should these women save the president?

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A 28-year-old playwright makes her debut on Broadway tonight. Her play, "POTUS," is a farce, complete with slamming doors, profanity and a cast of seven comic actresses. Jeff Lunden spoke with the players and the playwright.

SELINA FILLINGER: The thing I love about farce is that it is tragedy that you laugh at.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Selina Fillinger is the author of "POTUS." We chatted in the lounge of the Shubert Theatre on Broadway while a soundcheck was going on upstairs.

FILLINGER: And there was so much tragedy around, yet we still need to laugh in order to keep moving through it.

LUNDEN: Here's the setup. The president of the United States is a man who the audience never meets, and he's said a word which cannot be repeated on NPR in front of a Chinese diplomatic delegation and the press corps, causing a variety of crises, which spiral out of control. And seven women, from the chief of staff to the press secretary to the first lady, try desperately to save him. Vanessa Williams, who plays the first lady, says audiences respond from the moment the curtain rises.

VANESSA WILLIAMS: When they hear the first word, people are shocked, and then they know that they're in for an unconventional ride.

LUNDEN: The president's chief of staff is trying to contain the fallout.


JULIE WHITE: (As Harriet) Everyone heard it. Everyone got it. Two people gasped.

FILLINGER: When you think about it, often the things that we consider the most derogatory about women are curse words that are just referring directly to genitalia.

LUNDEN: Playwright Selina Fillinger may be writing a fall-down funny play, but she's got a lot of questions in mind.

FILLINGER: Trying to unpack the misogyny and assumptions that are just even in our vocabulary, and why is this word derogatory? Why is that an inherently bad thing? Why is it bad to call a woman this? Who decided that this is a bad word and made this into an oppressive thing? And can that be reclaimed?

LUNDEN: Director Susan Stroman describes the play as taking place in an alt universe where the president - his political party is never mentioned - abuses his power.

SUSAN STROMAN: There are many people who are complicit with it, and it is about that, too. It is about a group of women who do what they can to save him. And then at one point, it's too much. And it asks that question about, what happens if, at one point, no one does help him?

LUNDEN: That's the central dilemma for the chief of staff, Harriet, who's kind of the shadow president. Two characters talk about her.


LEA DELARIA: (As Bernadette) Harriet works for my brother.

SUZY NAKAMURA: (As Jean) Harriet works your brother. Harriet's is the No. 1 reason this country continues to function.

DELARIA: (As Bernadette) Then why isn't she president?

NAKAMURA: (As Jean) That's the eternal question, isn't it?

LUNDEN: Julie White plays Harriet. She says she fell in love with the play from the moment she picked it up.

WHITE: The dedication page says, for Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, Shirley Chisholm and every other woman who's ever found herself the secondary character in a male farce.

LUNDEN: Playwright Selina Fillinger says she really wanted to subvert the classic forms of farce in "POTUS," which began with making the ensemble entirely women. For instance, instead of having a woman running around in her underwear, which happens in many male-dominated farces, she's got a member of the press corps running around with a breast pump.

FILLINGER: The characters in the play are, like, all versions of women that I have seen or versions of women I have been - right? - at various points of crisis or, like, high stakes, and then just taking that and blowing that up.


WHITE: (As Harriet) Oh, my God, Jean. I had no idea your BA in marketing made you such a [expletive] expert in international diplomacy.


LUNDEN: The play had initially been scheduled to open during the 2020 election, but COVID scuttled those plans. And Julie White says opening now feels better.

WHITE: People need to really laugh and, in some ways, to laugh about the state of politics and political discourse, but not in a specific way. I don't want any more Trump jokes.

LUNDEN: And director Susan Stroman says by the end of the play, there is an implication that the shadow president Julie White plays may well become the president herself.

STROMAN: Well, certainly, the future is there, but it's going to be a fight. And I think that's what Selina is saying, too. It's hopeful, but it's not hopeful without a fight.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


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