am Jackson, Sydney Millsap; Sarah Mitchell, Lauren. Photography by Ben Krantz
Sydney Millsap and Sarah Mitchell in Kings, the latest production from Shotgun Players. Photo: Ben Krantz

Author Sarah Burgess, whose dramatic hit Dry Powder explored the amoral world of private equity financing last year, has authored the intelligent and tightly written dark comedy Kings, which censures our all-American political fundraising process.

This penetrating four-person character study, ably directed by Joanie McBrien (Grand Concourse) actually has an all-important fifth character: the special-interest groups whose money fuels our elections. And, although at times it almost veers toward preachiness, Kings’ four human portrayals are strong enough to keep our attention fastened on them.

Sydney Millsap (Sam Jackson, Kill the Debbie Downers!) is a fresh new member of the House of Representatives as a result of a special election to fill a vacant seat in Dallas, Texas. She’s an African American woman, a Gold-Star widow, and a former accountant, and “the first woman and the first person of color ever to represent [her] district,” as she is continually being reminded — to her chagrin.

Filled with honesty and keen intelligence, she refuses to kowtow to the special-interest groups seeking to fund her campaign in exchange for supporting their bills. In that regard, Millsap is the opposite of entrenched favorite Texas Senator John McDowell (Don Wood, Dry Land, Our Town), perhaps a Presidential candidate if all goes well, who is the master at how to go along to get along.

Lobbyist Lauren (Sarah Mitchell, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence) is at the top of her political game, perhaps because she has lost any sense of conventional ethics. She has a close relationship with Senator McDowell. In fact, her lobbying firm pays her a $100,000 bonus for each year he stays in office. Lobbyist Kate (Elissa Beth Stebbins, Kiss, The Village Bike), on the other hand, is rising in her field, yet is intrigued with the new Congresswoman. Perhaps she harbors a secret wish that Millsap might actually be able to succeed in her straightforward approach to representing her district.

As Kings continues, in addition to some unexpected twists in the plot, the audience learns a bit about how lobbyists ply their trade. Many of the scenes are at lobbyists’ retreats at resorts like Vail, where members of Congress are lavishly entertained. Since it’s legally prohibited for lobbyists to pay for dinners, only appetizers are served. Millsap is ever dining on “little pieces of salmon.” There is an intelligent discussion about the Carried Interest Fairness Act, which has been stalled in Congress for years by the banking lobby.

I liked Kings a lot. Director McBrien succeeds in keeping the action moving along, although most of the action is conversation. The acting was uniformly strong, but it’s the writing that truly excels. Kings has a stronger message than Burgess’s Dry Powder, although Dry Powder told its tale with more humor and a stronger resolution. Even though the plot of Kings ends with uncertainty, all of the characters and the audience know that the entrenched system of campaign fundraising will remain in place until laws are changed by a radical Congress or by a Constitutional Amendment.

Kings is playing at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, through June 22nd. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Shotgun Players online.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...