Social distancing, a phrase that ballooned in the worldwide lexicon this year, had a deeper definition for spouses Jordan Richard and Elizabeth Davis this spring. Like most families separated during the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple and their toddler Josiah stayed connected via video chats.
The backdrops to those calls, however, belied how rapidly the world had changed.
Richard, BA ’05, often made those calls to his wife and son from a remote studio within 30 Rockefeller Plaza in midtown Manhattan, the headquarters of NBC and a virtual national monument to news and entertainment. There, the longtime media professional worked as a “designated survivor” production member for NBC Nightly News and other national and local programming. When he and Davis, BFA ’03, decided that it made sense for Josiah to spend the global pandemic in a space larger and safer than a New York apartment, Richard stayed behind to cover the story that NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt told him and his colleagues would define their generation.
More than 1,700 miles away, Davis, a Tony Award-nominated stage actress with Broadway billings such as the Tony Award-winning musical Once to her credit, spent their conversations surrounded by the open spaces of her Texas Panhandle hometown. Channing, Texas, population 345, was socially distant from New York City to say the least. Combined with the support network of her family, Channing was an ideal destination.
While Josiah played in the same yard and fields that she did as a child, Davis nurtured her son and stayed connected with castmates for the musical 1776, in which her skills as an actress and musician will be called upon to play the role of a fellow violinist: Thomas Jefferson.
“We knew there would be an endless calendar of work because this beast of a story was staring us down,” Richard says. “It seemed like the best decision to keep our family safe and our families sane — to give them space, freedom and room to run outside the madness that was New York.”
While the decision made sense, the emotional weight of uncertainty and separation required faith — something the couple has displayed in abundance since their days as Baylor students.
New York City has been kinder to Davis and Richard than it is to many aspirants. The talents they honed at Baylor proved up to the standards of the city’s notoriously competitive environment.
Both dreamed of a career in New York City while at Baylor. For Davis, a theater arts major with Broadway ambitions, the Big Apple was an obvious goal. Richard was a telecommunication major (now known as film and digital media). He experienced the nation’s largest media market as a part of the department’s first Baylor in New York class, which supported his opportunity to intern at Good Morning America in fall 2003.
Both moved to the city separately after graduating from Baylor. They climbed their industries’ ranks and established themselves as professionals. In 2007, a serendipitous meeting at Manhattan’s Columbus Circle reunited the couple, who briefly dated as Baylor sophomores. They were married the next year.
Richard was impressive enough as a Good Morning America intern to earn a full-time job with the show, advancing to production assistant for the director before eventually moving to NBC.
Davis garnered critical acclaim for off-Broadway roles like Emily Dickinson, the lead character in Emily, An Amethyst Remembrance. When Broadway called in 2012, she was ready. She received a Tony Award nomination for her portrayal of Réza in the musical Once. The role required her to act, sing, dance and play the violin in a production that earned eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Their next adventure was parenthood; Josiah was born in 2017. His arrival was celebrated by family in Texas and the faith community the couple found in New York City at places like The Gallery Church, where Richard is a lay pastor and Davis is a women’s minister. By 2020, the Big Apple had long since become home for the two native Texans and their son.
Implications from the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up quickly — for the metropolitan area of nearly 20 million people and the family of three. The city’s vulnerability as a global metropolis, a toddler, an urban apartment and Richard’s role in covering the pandemic brought the family’s options into focus.
The trio spent a four-day weekend at Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia. The trip provided Davis a window into the subject of her upcoming role as America’s third president and principle author of the Declaration of Independence.
The trip proved to be their fork-in-the-road moment. At the weekend’s conclusion, Richard returned to New York City, while Davis and Josiah headed to Texas.
“I got off the phone with Jordan one night in March and thought about it all,” Davis says. “I thought about how proud I was of Jordan and how I wanted Josiah and our future children to know what their daddy was doing. I thought about our decision to come to Texas, how it was the right one for our family but not necessarily the decision we would’ve made as individuals, to be apart.”
Richard was spending 12-hour days inside NBC Studios — his work home for more than a decade. He directs local news for New York City affiliate WNBC-TV and is an associate director for national programming, including the Today show and NBC Nightly News. That experience and versatility landed Richard on NBC’s “designated survivor” crew. The threat of a coronavirus outbreak within 30 Rock demanded that he and other “survivors” be sequestered from the rest of their colleagues. With nearly all of NBC’s production team unavailable, Richard played a role in ensuring that NBC continued delivering the news.
“In the 17 years that I’ve been in the city, there have been a lot of enormous stories that I’ve been privileged to work on,” Richard says. “But you don’t realize the impact or the gravity of something until someone with gravitas puts it in perspective.”
On a Nightly News conference call, Holt uncharacteristically spoke up. Richard remembers what the national anchor said.
“He said, ‘To the young journalists on this call, you need to realize this is the story that will define your generation. Working on 9/11, that was my generation’s story. You don’t realize it’s happening because it has slowly crept up on us, but it’s the story you’ll remember covering for the rest of your life.’”
Each day brought that clearly into focus. Nearly deserted streets and shuttered subway lines set an eerie backdrop on the way to work. The “survivors” crew spent their days on a different floor, putting together familiar programs in an unfamiliar setting. Eventually, they were directed to broadcast from home, and Richard fulfilled his Nightly News duties from his living room. His dual role provided a micro view in the local news — the people Richard loves and calls his neighbors — and a macro view with Nightly News covering the national story.
“To the young journalists on this call, you need to realize this is the story that will define your generation.” -Lester Holt, Anchor, NBC Nightly News
Video chats and phone calls from Davis and Josiah provided moments of sanity amidst the chaos for Richard. Loving greetings, amusing toddler thoughts and the knowledge that family was safe provided instant grounding. A special moment came when Josiah discovered face filters that made his dad look like an animal on the screen.
“I would say 10 percent of the time when Josiah is interacting with Jordan over FaceTime, there is kind of a confused, inquisitive stance of, ‘I miss you. When are we going to New York City?’” Davis says. “There has been more than one time where Jordan and I have had to hide our faces. Sometimes, I will have to go into another room to cry so that I’m not confusing our child. That’s hard.”
Davis says her parents have been an extraordinary gift as she spends time writing and preparing to portray Jefferson. Connecting via Zoom, she and castmates laid the groundwork for the production, discussed music and listened to lectures from Harvard professors that provided insights into the people they will portray and the timeframe they will inhabit.
Richard said Davis did an amazing job managing the emotional weight of the situation while making Josiah feel safe.
“Part of that is by being the mother that she is and being as joyful as she is with him,” he says. “She’s really taking on a lot in this, more than being a mom and an actor. She’s also being a compassionate care keeper for more people than just those in her general vicinity.”
Dr. Joe Kickasola, film and digital media professor and director of the Baylor in New York program, is among the Baylor professors Davis and Richard credit for shaping them. These professors aren’t surprised by the couple’s success or the grace they’ve shown in demanding careers.
“Being selected as a designated survivor isn’t about Jordan having seniority,” Kickasola said. “It’s that he’s deemed to have the experience, energy and capability of rising to a number of unforeseen challenges. That’s truly what I saw in Jordan when he was my student — humility alongside ambition and a more holistic picture of what success actually is. For Jordan, success is wrapped up in this: What are all the things that God has called him to be? There’s a certain steadiness about him that people recognize.”
Dr. Stan Denman, MA ’89, chair of Baylor’s theater arts department, was one of Davis’ professors. He tells a similar story about his former student.
“One of the things that set Elizabeth apart was that she’s a deep thinker in addition to her acting abilities,” Denman says. “Her ability to think deeply and philosophically about everything from a theatre history exam to the theme of a play and what it was going to mean to an audience was exceptional.”
Mission Waco, where Davis volunteered for four years, played a large role in her time away from the stage. She developed a friendship with Narciso Allala, who at times lived on the streets of Waco and was better known as Joe Lightfoot Gonzales. They thought of each other as family. When Allala died in 2014, Davis wrote his obituary and later penned the biographical production My Name’s Not Indian Joe.
Denman recalls a group meal at a Greenwich Village pizzeria during a theater trip to New York City. He looked around but couldn’t find Davis, who was part of the 32-person group. She had not gone far.
“She had seen a homeless man, walked over and asked him if he’d like some pizza,” Denman says. “Amidst all the excitement and distraction of New York City, she had such a heart for Christ and an eye out for people who might not be a part of mainstream society.”
Davis and Richard regularly share with Baylor classes their experiences in theater and media, respectively. They analyze what it means to be a person of faith in their professional fields and how to handle inevitable challenges. What they learned this spring will inform future Baylor classrooms.
In May, the pandemic play continued to be written. Richard produced local and national news programs from his living room. Elizabeth prepared for when the production of 1776 transitions from Zoom meetings to an actual theater.
Fortunately, they are no longer physically apart. Davis and Richard were reunited May 1 when he traveled to Texas, ending 41 days of physical separation. The journey had a few hiccups, such as the cancellation of Richard’s flight from Dallas to Amarillo. He spent the night in the Metroplex with his mother before making the six-hour drive to Channing in a rental car.
Richard’s winding path from New York City to Channing culminated in an intense three-person hug, complete with tears. Davis likens the moment to a musical instrument returning to proper tuning.
The family has returned to New York City with a sense of perspective about a spring they will never forget.
“They say parenting is long days and short years,” Davis says. “Our time apart was like that in the same way I imagine this whole event will seem when it’s finally over. It feels interminable now, but a blip of time when we look back.”