In his new Philly play, ‘Elle’ columnist R. Eric Thomas asks ‘Who really owns a story?’

The author splits his time between plotting stage action and writing a scathing humor column.

rericthomas-playwright
Courtesy R. Eric Thomas

Mrs. Harrison

R. Eric Thomas
Azuka Theatre
Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake
302 S. Hicks St.
May 4 to 20


Updated May 7

Columnist-playwright R. Eric Thomas is such a good natured chap that he doesn’t mind being teased about leaving his home in Philadelphia right after he was awarded a 2016 Barrymore for his musical, Time is On Our Side.

It was marriage that took him back to his native Baltimore, he said. “It certainly wasn’t my intention. Besides, I keep coming back to Philly because they keep doing my plays.”

The next Philly play, Mrs. Harrison, is being put on by Azuka Theatre at The Drake in Rittenhouse.

As he prepared for the production, Thomas, who was an active member of local playwright workshop The Foundry, was fully ready to admit he misses his adopted city. Especially the walkability, he noted, and the daily feeling of “running into everybody you know.”

He’s also ready to give Philly’s growing theater scene props.

“There’s a greater awareness of the talent here,” Thomas said, describing a shift since he was coming up. “Newer works to be found, whether previously written or self-devised. My hope is that we move toward being a city such as Chicago where there is an overabundance of theatre that is independent from big ticket funders. I love that we have big beautiful spaces, but that sometimes limits the work that you can do. I’d love to see more creative, multi-purpose space — more pop-ups.”

Where? “Close off a section of Target and have a show.”

Known equally for his theater pieces and his columns — the humorous “Eric Reads the News” is a repeating feature on Elle — Thomas said he’d love to be able to intertwine the two more often.

He has been trying to add more current humor to his plays, he explained, but confessed that the column stretches a completely different divining muscle. “It’s hard for the forms to meet, especially as the column is usually like a late-night monologue. I’m trying to incorporate that into my theater…to be bolder and funnier. Then again, people expect what they expect from my plays.”

Mrs. Harrison is not comedy, but it does have an unusual structure, one inspired by music by artists like Beyonce and Janelle Monae, whose most recent album, Dirty Computer, is currently bending Thomas’ ear and twisting his soul.

“Early in my career as a playwright, I was inspired by structural formalists such as Arthur Miller and August Wilson,” he explained. “Now, I am interested in using traditional structure as a backbone and remixing and blending anew from there.”

The idea of artistic liability and who owns a story is now prevalent in all of his tale-telling, he said, including Mrs. Harrison, “which was dug from the inside of me, out.”

In Mrs. Harrison, the action revolves around a 10-year college reunion where Aisha (a successful black playwright) meets Holly (a struggling white stand-up comedian), and a debate arises about whether Aisha’s big hit was based on something Holly actually experienced.

“That’s the meaty interesting part,” Thomas said. “The question becomes, that play’s experience — based on one that Holly lived and only ever told to one person, Aisha — whose tale is that?”

A black playwright writing a play about a black playwright? No. It’s not autobiographical. He never even thought of himself as a “capital P” playwright before the last few years, he said. “I actually thought of the Holly character as close to who I am.”

The script, he said, “had room for many different interpretations — very intentionally.” He was agnostic about which interpretation was the correct one, so much so that he felt like there were 16 potential versions of the play, and it was up to Azuka to decide how to present it.

Thomas carefully considers the audience he writes for, and how they’ll view each of his works.

“This is a play that is written about race and wrestles with race, and for the foreseeable future the majority of audiences who see this will be white theatergoing audiences. That is where I am in my career. I wrote to that,” he said. “If I was part of a black theater collective…there’s a different conversation to be had.

“You have to be aware of the world that you are writing or putting plays into,” Thomas said. “It’s more fun for me to say, ‘I know you’re there.’ Now let’s see how that changes things.”