By Nathan James
When President Donald Trump famously branded journalists critical of him and his administration “enemies of the people”, the characterization set off alarm bells among media professionals. As Trump’s ill-fated presidency draws to a close, questions about his authoritarian approach are being raised more frequently. The tropes Trump (and his lieutenants) regularly bandied about, such as “fake news” or the even more heinous “alternative facts” euphemism for outright lying, have shown everyone what a Trump-run, “official” state news organ might look and sound like. Now a team of writers, producers and actors have come together to bring that concept one step further—by imagining a government-run media that surveils and exposes its perceived “enemies” for all to see. It’s called Cease Quiet, and it’s right out of today’s headlines, with relish.
Paul Elliott, head writer and exec of the new digital play, recalls the project’s casual beginnings. “Conceptualization began during a conversation over “phone drinks” Bret Tucker and I had shortly after the George Floyd assassination. We were both enraged and looking for a way to react in a positive manner that could possibly effect change, but while also acknowledging the pandemic,” Elliott reflected. “We wanted to keep the actors safe but didn’t want to create a Zoom meeting play – so I came up with the idea of a TV or radio host interviewing people, which is something that happens outside of the pandemic (Howard Stern for example).” Out of that grew a bolder idea—borne out of the need to engage more diverse creative voices. Elliott acknowledged that he and Tucker “were two straight cis white guys and the themes we were talking about – even though I lived them growing up in the South Bronx – needed a more delicate approach and inclusive voice in 2020.”
The pair spoke with Tym Moss, who appears in the play and contributed some of the original dialogue, who Elliott has worked with before. “We just clicked,” Elliott says. Also brought aboard were writer/producer/director Alex Mercado, who “has done all of the videography and artwork for my plays, has recorded a few short films I wrote and been a friend for years,” Elliott declares, and the concept grew into fullness.
“By this time, I’d refined the concept to take on a bigger part of the populist hatred problem as I saw it – the propaganda machine of Fox News. The blood-thirsty tv show would use invasive technology to “burst in” on enemies of the state and expose them to the world seeking retribution. “I took a grad course on the rise of the Third Reich back in college and was fascinated how powerful words were when spoken at the right place, at the right time – or more aptly in this case, the wrong place at the wrong time. The realization particularly hit when I was going up the escalator on campus in the middle of Harlem, a white kid with blond hair and blue eyes, carrying printouts of Nazi propaganda for a research paper I was doing. I looked around and thought, ‘Man, if I tripped and dropped these, right now, looking like I do, people will think I’m a Nazi!’ It was sobering,” Elliot recounts, and it led him to another epiphany: what if a modern-day propaganda apparatus like that of WWII Germany arose now? “Say if a Stephen Miller puppetmaster ever got his hands on the strings of a willingly useful and bowtied Swanson-heir puppet fulfilling the dangerous and psychopathic path blazed by Limbaugh and Gingrich? Surely we’d see through it! But, as recently proven, 74 million Americans still can’t. And that’s why this film still needs to be made.” That stark realization is one shared by the rest of the team, as well.
Mercado seconds Elliott’s artistic warning here, pointing out that part of the play’s purpose is to raise awareness. “Essentially what we’re saying is to be proactive in what you believe in,” Mercado notes. “Don’t sit back and let things happen because you think you have no real say. We’re always five minutes away from some sort of fascism and a binding of liberties.” There are some clear parallels with Trump’s recent post-election machinations and the story in Cease Quiet. “Everyone has been weaponized politically,” Mercado points out. “It’s obviously a deep seeded ‘mistrust of the other’ that has finally reared its hideous face, proudly. There’s no escaping it, because there’s just an inherent ugliness inside of people that like to destroy everything.”
The ensemble cast, which includes Tym Moss, Jonathan Dauermann A Small Mistake), Andrea Peterson, Sabrina Santiago, Jessika Cruz, Carlos Garcia Contreras, and Ben Dawson, give lively voice to a parable of our times. Even the vulnerability of marginalized groups like the LGBTQ community isn’t ignored here. “My gay character has undergone conversion therapy, but I don’t know I’m still being watched,” Moss says, “Homosexuality is now illegal, and I’m in full drag. I get caught having phone sex with my boyfriend and put on live public trial.” Given recent attempts to roll back gay rights in the Supreme Court, this scenario isn’t too far-fetched at all. Lead producer Bret Tucker thinks the connection to reality, post-election, has only grown. “Oh man, we thought the play would be completely irrelevant after Election Day, but it’s become even more relevant if that’s possible,” Tucker ponders. “Every day we teeter on the edge of a full-blown shit show not unlike the one seen in Cease Quiet!”
Writer/producer/director Sheyna Lee Benoit sees an allegory between real life and the play: “Trump’s plan to launch his own news network that could and likely will devolve into something closely resembling the RRN, the film’s fictional news network.” An accomplished dramatist, Benoit has “friends with Paul Elliot, whose brainchild Cease Quiet is, for over 25 years.”. Moving forward with this engaging political statement despite the challenges of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been a therapeutic experience for all. Visit Cease Quiet on Facebook and Tumblr to discover more about this provocative new production. Oh, and remember…they’re watching you!