INTERVIEW: R. Eric Thomas on his Gayborhood-Inspired Play
R. Eric Thomas wears a lot of hats: He’s the Program Director at the William Way Community Center, an award-winning storyteller, playwright, and Oprah fanatic. Therefore, it seems almost natural that Thomas would compose his newest fictional work about a group of Philly-based podcasters who explore the city’s LGBTQ history while uncovering a salacious secret.
The play, Time Is On Our Side, will get a full staging in June 2016 with Simpatico Theatre Project, but for those who can’t quite wait that long, no worries: PlayPenn, Philadelphia’s professional new play development organization, will be offering a free reading of the work next Monday, December 7th at the William Way Center starting at 6:30 pm. The reading cast features a host of notable actors, including Brandi Burgess, Kristen Norine, James Ijames, and David Bardeen. We sat down with Thomas to talk about his work, what inspires him, and what we can expect to see from him next.
Tell me more about what inspired you to write this work. A couple of things actually—The “Pride and Progress” mural on the side of the [William Way] Center, which depicts a Gay Pride celebration that spans decades and begins with the Annual Reminder protests; the podcast Serial, which tells a terrifically engrossing true-life mystery while ruminating on the nature of storytelling; the podcast Throwing Shade, which hilariously comments on modern social justice issues; and the rumor that the basement of Tavern on Camac used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad.
What do you hope having the reading at William Way will add to the experience? The Center actually plays a pivotal role in the plot of the play—as does Tavern on Camac, the John C. Anderson Apartments and a number of other Philly locations—so I’m hoping it will add a fun layer of resonance. I’m also excited that members of the William Way community and Gayborhood community at large will get a chance to see the piece and share their thoughts and feelings with me and others as I work to perfect it.
What do you feel you’ve learned through workshopping the play? The workshop process is so crucial to new plays in that it’s like beta testing for new technology. It’s a sandbox that I get to play in. Because my play is a comedy based on historical events, there’s a couple different things to test—are the jokes funny (obviously, they’re hilarious), are the facts right (the William Way Center Archive is a great resource for that), does the play sound, feel, and move the way it should? Perhaps most importantly, hearing the words in front of an audience gives me a sense of what the world of the play looks like outside of my head. One of the hardest things about writing (and life, really) is figuring out what I’m conveying to others versus what is happening only inside my head. Now that I think about it, workshopping relationships would probably be really valuable.
You have a fabulous cast, too. Have you had a chance to work with them yet? OMG they are fabulous! I’ve been so lucky during this whole process. There are so many talented performers in Philly and I’ve had a chance to work with a bunch of them on this piece already. The cast for this reading gathered a few weeks ago to go through the play and give initial feedback. It was just great. David Bardeen is an actor I really really admire and I’m very glad he’s available for the PlayPenn reading. The part he’s reading will be played by Ryan Walter in the production—who is just stunning—but since Ryan wasn’t available for the reading, I’m really glad to have another very talented actor give such a different take. Kristen Norine is pretty much the reason this play exists—she’s so funny and smart and passionate. Much of this play grew out of casual conversations with her. I’m basically obsessed with James Ijames and Brandi Burgess. James and I have been friends for years but this is, I believe, the first time we’ll be working on a creative project together (unless you count kiki-ing about Scandal over Facebook as a creative project. Which is definitely is). And Brandi, I’ve wanted to work with since I saw her in the phenomenal Azuka Theatre show Pookie Goes Grenading. Ugh, so much talent.
What’s next for you? The Patti LaBelle Story? My Divine Addiction to Bette Midler? Those are fantastic ideas! I want to do 90s divas what Lin-Manuel Miranda did for the founding fathers! Who can I talk to about this? Until I hear back from Broadway about that, I’ll be working on a couple of new scripts, a two-woman piece about stand-up comedy and cultural appropriation, and a family comedy about a poor gay couple whose parents have to move back in with them. It’s a little bit Roseanne, a little bit All in the Family, a little bit Keeping Up Appearances.
For more information on next week’s reading, and to reserve your free tickets, visit the PlayPenn website.