The FBI agent wheezes, sniffles, and coughs. It’s so random, you might think as you watch Is This A Room that they belong to Pete Simpson, the actor playing him—which may also seem gross as Broadway reopens in these pandemic-scarred times, and as he’s standing so close to his fellow actors.
The sounds are an added note of jangling discomfort in this play, conceived and directed by Tina Satter, that remains rigorously faithful to the FBI transcript of what happened when two agents came to the home of Reality Winner in 2017 to interrogate the then-25-year-old former Air Force linguist and intelligence contractor about leaking evidence of Russian interference in U.S elections to The Intercept.
The coughs and nasal problems, and various ticks of speech and utterances, are in the transcription—and they are now in a piece of startlingly excellent theater. (The audio of the interrogation was heard in the documentary, The United States vs. Reality Winner.)
“We are so in each other’s business,” Emily Davis, who plays Reality, said, laughing.
“Yes, this is really a period piece where you could cough freely next to each other,” Satter said.
“People watching the play will have their discomfort heightened by virtue of the last year and a half,” said Davis.
Is Davis worried about catching anything, even with strict protocols being in place? “We’re basically in each other’s nostril hairs at this point,” the actor laughed. “We’re being as safe as we can be.”
In 2018, Winner was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison for the crime. This June, Winner was released from jail and is now in home confinement, living with her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, in Kingsville, Texas.
Winner was unavailable for comment, but her mother told The Daily Beast the play—first performed off-Broadway and then touring prior to its Broadway engagement—was “amazing. Emily and the cast have done such a good job. I’m so happy for all of them.”
For Billie, it’s the small details that ring true, like Reality’s yellow Converse shoes with Pikachu on them. “It’s very intense to see a very vulnerable young woman on stage, and know all this happened to Reality. It was difficult for us as her family to watch, but I’m so glad they made it to Broadway.”
Winner has told her mother how scared she was at that moment. “She talks about knowing how she could have made the wrong move, that something could have been terribly wrong,” Billie said. “What if her dog bit someone? What if her cat had escaped, she had run after it, and been shot? She truly felt a lot of fear about how all that was going to end for her. They didn’t secure her weapons until the very end, and let her walk through the bedroom where the weapons were. Over the last four years she has had the opportunity to think about all the little things that happened that day.”
Winner will be officially released from custody on Nov. 23, her mother said. “It’s wonderful to have her home,” Billie said, “but right now she has to wear a heavy ankle monitor, and answer to a halfway house whenever they call her in for drug tests. She is still very confined and restricted.”
Billie said her daughter was working on a documentary project, taking college courses, and is writing about her experience of prison life. “She is keeping herself extremely busy, trying to find her way,” Billie said. “She’s figuring out how to emerge and deal with everything she has been through.” Reality is “very involved” with the cast and crew, and met everyone via Zoom before their first rehearsal, her mother said. “Now she’s part of a new family. She and Emily are almost like sisters, it’s kind of cute.”
Having gotten to know her, Emily Davis says Winner is as “fun as fuck,” and moments like that animate that part of her. Different aspects of Reality’s personality have emerged in their interactions, and she imagines that will continue as their friendship goes on.
“What she did was wrong, it contravened the law whatever you show on stage,” said Davis. “But personally speaking, I don’t give up no people or write people off when they make decisions I don’t agree with. I have another pen pal in prison. I do not agree with his choices, but I deeply care about our friendship and am excited for him to be discovering things about his life and to be his confidante for that.”
Yes, Davis says, she is trying to elicit our sympathy for Reality, but for her the piece is more “an experiment of being in rooms in proximity to people in distress. This is a powerful thing. If you can achieve that level of discomfort in theater, it can usually lead to a bigger conversation—and I think the play has been effective in that way.”
In 2017, when Satter first read the transcript, she immediately felt the “incredible energy and characters,” as well as it being fully formed as a dramatic piece. However, she and Davis are both “very aware” its chief protagonist is very much alive, and it likely not being a day anyone in the family “wants us to remember,” as Satter put it. “We knew we couldn’t do the production without the agreement of the family,” said Davis.
Satter laughed as she recalled getting an email from Billie. “I thought she was going to go, ‘No, stop what you’re doing’, cease and desist, but it was the opposite. She was thrilled, and asked us to videotape it.”
Billie later came to see the play performed off-Broadway and again in Michigan. She was “very moved,” said Emily. Satter says Billie was moved by details such as what Davis wore. “Generally, they saw what we were doing as having an integrity. This is what happened that day. We haven’t added anything, we didn’t push the humor, but just leaned into the surreal ridiculousness of what is on the page. We didn’t want the family to think we were making a comedy out of this thing.”
Davis says there “may be a bit of a Texas forever thing there too,” as she is from near Dallas, Texas, and her mother’s side of the family from Corpus Christi, close to where Reality is from.
For Billie it was instructive for the play to show how the FBI agents “try to keep her off-balance, while also seeing how she threw some curveballs herself. It shows me she was scared at that moment and also standing up for herself.”
Billie says that while we only see three agents on stage, there were 11 in Reality’s home that day (Becca Blackwell plays a composite of all of them). The truth of that day, says Billie, was that Reality was in the small back room of the property, with two large-framed FBI agents, with her back against a corner wall. “It was truly terrifying for her,” her mother said. She likes the moment of sharp humor Reality displays. “That’s my quick-witted daughter,” she said.
“She also explains why she did what she did. To me, that’s the most powerful thing. Reality hasn’t been able to speak for the last four years. This piece—with her speaking, and what Emily does so well for her—tells us everything we need to know about her motivations. In prison, Reality heard from people who had seen the play, and had been motivated and inspired by it. It helped build awareness and support for her. Now it’s on Broadway, I hope it continues to grow more awareness and support, and that we can continue to fight for justice, clemency, and a pardon.”
However, Billie said, “The hope of clemency is slipping away as each day passes. Once she is out of home confinement, 3 years of a supervised release begins—basically probation. I don’t think the president would think was a pressing issue since she will be out from under the prison system. But she would take it. To have do 3 more years of probation is restrictive and taxing. I hope she does get the pardon. I feel she deserves it so much. It’s the right thing for this president to do, or a future one.
“She did what she did for her country, and Americans. She didn’t want the truth hidden from us. She didn’t harm national security. She served such a harsh sentence already. 4 years in prison: that’s not nothing. She deserves to have her life back, and a pardon would allow her to speak freely about her case.”
Billie says her activism around social justice began in college when she studied social work, later becoming a social worker working in child protective services around issues like child neglect and domestic violence. He daughters would come with her to community events like candlelight vigils. “They saw the importance of becoming involved, working for social programs and justice.”
Satter said the family is a “very cool” mix of “fascinating, smart, down-home Texas, activist minds. Billie was very much like, ‘I want people to know my daughter’s name, and what is happening in this country.’ To them, Reality is someone who has served their country, spoken out, and was sent to jail when the really corrupt cronies of the powerful who should be in jail are not in jail.
“Billie says Reality may be home, but she is not free. If she doesn’t get a pardon, life for her will never be totally free. She’s never said, ‘thank you so much for doing the play for me,’ but she’s been very helpful. She’s recorded a voiceover at the end for us. She wants her story out there. She’s really interested in talking about how prison has been for her—not just as a white woman, but what the punitive system is like, and perhaps writing about that herself.”
“What does this feel like for Reality? That’s what we returned to again and again”
The play is around 70 minutes long, the exact time of the interrogation, and the staging is stark and simple. There is no recreation of Winner’s Augusta, Georgia, home; just a stage with two slightly raised platforms. Our imaginations do the rest. Her spookily real-looking dog, Mickey, and cat, Mina, are the work of a puppeteer.
If the words are faithful to the encounter, Satter and Davis skillfully imagine the emotional and physical sensations of what unfolded that day. Winner and the two agents are involved in a kind of ballet that is sometimes in fluent formation, and sometimes set up in a far more menacing visual as the men intimidatingly loom over her.
As the company plays preview performances and resolves technical snafus, before officially opening on Monday, Davis says she hasn’t had time to absorb the full experience of being on Broadway, “although getting out of the train and walking through Times Square feels very cuckoo.” Putting a play on is always hard work, said Satter, but especially hard when it comes to the size and demands of a Broadway show. As she ducks out for a Starbucks coffee every day opposite the theater, she gets a kick out of thinking none of the cars going past her knows that the play inside is hers.
“There is usually a moment before we do any show where Tina has a meltdown—‘What the fuck are we doing? Why did I think we can do this?’—but so far we haven’t had one of those,” Davis said. Satter added that the early audiences on Broadway have seemed more open than the downtown ones, laughing at the play’s more surreal moments—as the agents talk about the practicalities of pet-care with Winner—as if they want the play “to work for them.”
“It’s like thinking if you want to kiss a person, they turn out to be a good kisser,” Davis said. “People are so ready to be in the embrace of live performance, it’s their eagerness to see something work.”
However, Davis has a “little orange bird on her shoulder” reminding her that even though she is now in a Broadway theater, she should not act “too big” to match the space. “The performance is meant to feel like an intimate conversation, and if it lost that quality it would be a very different show—and we’re fighting to preserve that feeling every single night. I am toeing that line of trying to bodily accept you are in a much bigger space, expand yourself in the smallest way, and not let it interfere with the purposeful decisions you’ve made so far.”
The bare stage and platforms are intended as a crucible; a setting for a forcefield of personalities in choreographed combat. “What does this feel like for Reality? That’s what we returned to again and again,” said Satter. “In this space we know this young woman’s life is going to be very different in an hour or so.”
If the play is intense to watch, for Davis it is a meticulously plotted rollercoaster, where she must navigate Reality’s many shades of conversation: what she is accused of, the concern for her pets, worrying that her groceries may have melted, realizing her hands are sweaty, and how short her shorts are. Davis shows her as fearful, funny, witty, smart, scared, and in control. For Satter, “it felt like the jig was up” when Winner admits her crime before the end of the FBI interview, and so the challenge is to focus on the emotional impact of her realizing that her admission means her life will be forever altered.
When I asked Satter and Davis if they see Reality as a victim, criminal, guilty, innocent, or a justice-minded whistleblower, or if she exists within a Venn diagram of blurred boundaries around all those, Emily Davis said the latter “puts it nicely.”
“The Venn diagram is right,” said Satter. “Part of me is a weird rule follower. It’s complicated. She did break the law. But this is a very ‘America 2017’ case, where a former military person who has high-level clearance sees something the government is lying about. She’s 25 years old, very idealistic, but also a soldier. It’s an incredible character study, a micro-moment of our country at this time, and also an examination of how information is controlled or not.”
It is not a dry presentation. At moments where names are redacted the lights go out, adding to the drama of the situation. There is humor in the interweaving of FBI agents comparing notes on pet-care, and then drilling down on what Winner did or didn’t do—game of cat-and-mouse, with added dog. Davis particularly relishes the moment of every performance where Reality takes back some control, and has the agents on the hop. “It’s an important moment—her inner badass comes out, and she tries to throw the agents off,” said Davis. “I do something slightly different every night.”
Audiences ask Davis: “Why didn’t she get a lawyer?” A lot of women have said to her that they felt “so uncomfortable” as the men surround Reality (as Davis said, a lot of women have had similar experiences of men). Pre-COVID, post-performances, women offered her “lots of hugs.”
The title, which seems to violate grammar, would make Satter “sick” had it had a question mark; the a is capitalized, when typically it would not be. Said by an agent in the play as a non-sequitur, it is supposed to induce as much curiosity as the play does—and also reflects how much of the exchange is about the space the three main characters are in: who occupies it, and who has control of it.
The play is important, said Billie, because “people often skip over what happened that day—the fact that Reality wasn’t read her Miranda rights, and that 11 agents stormed into her home and that she was trapped in the back room of her house where she told them she was not comfortable, and where she was coerced to confess to a crime. After that day she never saw freedom again.” (To solve one of the play’s mysteries, Billie says that Mina the cat has since been re-homed with Reality’s sister, and her dog Mickey was re-homed with a couple in the Augusta area.)
Billie knows the two FBI agents. She saw them at the courtroom a number of times, and listened to their testimonies. They talked to Billie and her husband in the way we see them in Is This A Room—trying to establish a warm rapport with Reality herself. Billie hopes the agents know about the play, and would go see it. “I wish they’d look back and ask: ‘Did they do the right thing?’ Part of me thinks they have to know it exists, given that Reality’s case has made national news and hasn’t died out. I wonder if they’re curious, and have the courage, to see how their words and actions are portrayed.”
Is Billie proud of her daughter? “Absolutely, yes,” she responds without a pause.