NOTE: This article was originally written for Studio’s production of Kings in the 2018-2019 season.
Sarah Burgess spoke with Vogue earlier this year about the play's inspiration and its DC connections: "The one thing about this play is it’s not a fairy tale about how great Washington is."
BY ADAM GREEN
March 21, 2018
While supporting herself as a math tutor a few years ago, Sarah Burgess, who had studied film as an undergraduate at NYU, decided to try her hand at writing a play. The result, Dry Powder, a vicious if cooly rendered comedy about ruthlessness and greed in the world of high finance, was immediately snapped up by The Public Theater, which gave it a first-class production in 2016, directed by Tommy Kail and starring Claire Danes, John Krasinski, and Hank Azaria. It announced the arrival of a writer with a gift for razor-sharp dialogue, shifting power dynamics, and loaded showdowns, not to mention an acid wit and a not entirely sunny view of human nature and 21st-century capitalism.
Now, Burgess, 35, is back at the Public with Kings, a taut, smart, queasily of-the-moment dissection of the cozy relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and of the corrosive effect of money and cronyism on politics in these United States. Once again under the direction of Kail, who showed that he knows his way around American politics in Hamilton, the play focuses on the fraught relationship between Sydney Milsap (Eisa Davis, sensational), an incorruptible congresswoman—and black Gold Star widow—from Texas who has come to Washington to buck a rotten system, and Kate (Gillian Jacobs, creepy but appealing), a rude, combative, and amoral lobbyist who vainly tries to get Sydney to play ball on behalf of her clients at a weekend retreat for lawmakers and lobbyists. After a few meetings with Sydney over margaritas and sizzling fajitas at Chili’s, Kate decides to provoke the ire of a lobbyist friend (Aya Cash) and a powerful senator steeped in the culture of quid pro quo (Zach Grenier) to help Sydney in a righteous if quixotic bid to challenge the senator for his long-held seat. Like Burgess’s first play, Kings is sleek, fast-paced, absorbing, and very funny, but it also paints a disturbing portrait of what the relentless pursuit of money and power does to the human spirit, and it leaves a sting that lasts. Burgess spoke with Vogue about her new play.
Not that it doesn’t deserve skewering, but what made you choose Washington and the world of lobbyists as the arena for the play?
I’m from Alexandria, Virginia, and so I’ve always had an interest in the culture of D.C. and the professionals who work there. I’d tried writing about it in a couple of ways, but I never really landed on anything. And then two or three years ago, I read about these fund-raising retreats that politicians do, and it just seemed incredibly funny to me—something about the powerful politicians and important lobbyists together for a weekend of organized fun. And that scenario made me curious about what kind of conversations happen there and how the business of politics gets negotiated. One of the tricky things about writing about this topic is that these aren’t strictly bribes. No one’s giving someone a $1,000 check and saying, “You have to sponsor this legislation for me.” It’s like a swingers convention in that, right underneath the small talk, there’s the obvious reason that everyone’s there.
The tone of the play is almost anthropological, but in the wake of the shootings in Florida and the inaction of NRA-funded lawmakers, it’s hard not to feel a sense of moral outrage. Was outrage part of your mind-set when you were writing it?
I didn’t write the play thinking that way, but I understand why that would be the effect. I see these plays as the first two parts of a trilogy, as something that I’m fixated on, which is that what we do in our jobs every day somehow makes us who we are. And also how money changes us and how easy it is to say that it doesn’t influence us, but how really challenging it is to avoid that. The voice of people who are unapologetic about their belief in the free market and survival of the fittest has always interested me. Of course, what that probably does in practice is create deeply unfair situations and harm people who don’t have a say. And that’s something that both this play and Dry Powder grapple with. I like thinking about those things. Writing it didn’t come from a place of anger so much as fascination—finding comedy in something that can be kind of bleak is something that for some reason I tend to be very drawn to.
The conclusion that the play seems to come to—that the influence of money is permanently baked into our system—is kind of bleak.
The one thing about this play is it’s not a fairy tale about how great Washington is. In the initial draft, I came up with a bizarre scheme for the congresswoman character to avoid the campaign finance system. I sort of tried to solve the problem in the play. But it was so absurd that it seemed ridiculous. The challenges of avoiding the coercive power of money was sort of too much to handle. There is something about how impossible that can feel that made me interested in the challenge. And the gravity of that against these resort trips and politicians and lobbyists playing golf in Florida or making s’mores together in Vail—the juxtaposition of those two things seemed potentially exciting to me. It’s at the heart of our government and how we feel about it right now. We feel hopeless and divided and disenfranchised. It’s the donors that really have the power. Money has so much sway over legislation. And that’s not a right or left issue. The idea that I might feel that way, but so does a guy who lives in my parents’ neighborhood in West Virginia, or in rural Texas. There is something that unites us in that, even though we’re divided in so many other ways. I guess that’s not necessarily a hopeful thing.