Sinks, Storytelling, and Psychodramatic Cats: Q & A with R. Eric Thomas

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MRS. HARRISON had its first preview on Wednesday and officially premieres in its final butterfly form this weekend. In honor of that, I posed a few questions to the man who started it all: Barrymore award-winning playwright R. Eric Thomas. I remember reading the script for this show the first time and being absolutely fascinated, so I was excited to hear what he had to say. And, so, yeah -- here it is.


You're a Philly guy. What’s your favorite spot in the city?

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That's so hard! And it depends on the season, but if I can cheat a little, it's Broad Street. All of it. Philly is the most walkable city in the world and Broad Street, even though it is a wind tunnel and a noisy point of contention for literally everyone, is also the major thoroughfare for much of the pedestrian city. When we were moving, we were standing on Broad, watching the moving truck so it didn't get a ticket for being double-parked (Sorry to literally everyone; it's not our fault. The movers didn't get a permit. It was a nightmare. SORRY TO EVERYONE! Sorry Nick Foles!) Anyway, we ran into so many people that we know and love, just walking down the street. I love walkable cities. I don't feel alive when you can't walk around an area and run into people. Every single time I'm in Philly, I run into people I know. That doesn't happen anywhere else, but it's vital to me and my life.

So, MRS. HARRISON. I’m a writer and this play really caught me in places and spoke to that part of me, making me think about my own writing and the way I tell stories. How did your own experience as a writer inform and inspire the piece?

With writing there's a lot of self-investigation--or, at least, there ought to be and I wanted to find a way to dramatize that and externalize it. I think that a lot of the questions we ask ourselves as writers and storytellers are similar to the questions everyone has about themselves and their place in the world. Stories are how we define ourselves and position ourselves. So, it makes sense that we question where the stories we tell are coming from, what purpose they serve, and who is telling them. Every play asks those questions, I suppose, but Mrs. Harrison was the first play where that was, for me, the initial impulse and primary goal.

  Have you ever heard the story...?

Have you ever heard the story...?

I have to give credit to Mark Andrews for this one; he pointed out the use of water imagery in the play -- sinks, rain, the river in the scorpion and turtle parable. Was this intentional? If so, what might it represent in the context of this story?

Yes! That's so smart! And, I have to admit, something that only coalesced for me after seeing a run-through in rehearsal. Kevin and Melissa Dunphy have placed thunder claps at places where something shifts for Aisha internally. I don't think this is something the audience should or will realize overtly, but it underscores the theme of water as a source of power. For much of the play, the water is a thing that hems the two characters in--it's raining outside, Aisha's struggle with the sinks, even the idea of cleanliness and laundry--so, I wanted to flip that by play's end to indicate that something dramatic has changed for one of the character (well, both, but especially one of them). Water is a conductor and also a force all on its own. I was very interested in that as a metaphor for the play. Ultimately, one of the things that undergirds this play are systems of oppression and the microaggressions that spring out of them. I didn't want to write a TED Talk so I rooted those concepts in symbols, and one of those symbols is water.

This play’s a power struggle. I sat in on a rehearsal and one of the questions Kevin and the actresses asked me was “In this moment, whose side are you on?” I have a feeling that based on who’s in the audience, that question will have very different responses. Does that make you nervous, or is that just a part of theatre for you?

 Danielle Leneé and Brandi Burgess in MRS. HARRISON (Photo by Johanna Austin / AustinArt.org)

Danielle Leneé and Brandi Burgess in MRS. HARRISON (Photo by Johanna Austin / AustinArt.org)

Oh, I love that. Before I saw the first preview I would have been very cavalier about declaring that it doesn't make me nervous because that's what I intended. I purposely set out to write a play where one person would have a different opinion from the person they came with. The reason these women are in conflict, partially, is because the stories they've been told about themselves sometimes don't reflect their lived experience and sometimes clash with the stories they've been told about others, or that they've told themselves about others. This happens to everyone. I wasn't interested in writing a play about race and gender and class in which the audience was told how to think about a situation or taught a lesson because my lived experience tells me that often that kind of didactic playwriting preaches to the choir and antagonizes those who've been told a different story; ultimately that exacerbates the conflict one is trying to address. Anyway, sitting in the first preview, I became very aware that we were all experiencing this together and became obsessed with how people felt about the actions of the two characters. But that's the point, right? We're all experiencing things together and then walking away with our own interpretations. That's exciting to me.

An Azuka blog staple: cats, dogs, or rats?

 One of these days...

One of these days...

 I'm a cat person, but I guess I see your point.

I'm a cat person, but I guess I see your point.

Ugh. First of all, never rats. Second, sorry to the cat contingent, but not cats. I like cats but I wish cats liked humans. So many cat owners try to convince me that cats are very affectionate but I've lived with cats before and let me tell you: cats don't give a damn about you and your human problems. I don't have time for all that psychodrama in my life. I don't need something that poops in a box making me feel bad about my life. I'm not trying to be talking about a cat in therapy. What a world! If I wanted to be ignored, I'd go to LA and try to talk to anyone, anywhere. Cats are like Instagram influencers who live in your house, eat your food, and roll their eyes every time you try to strike up a conversation about their latest selfie. No thanks. They can keep it. Dogs are codependent. I love dogs.

Do you have any stories or experiences that you have never told anyone? Or just one person? Are there things that you will never share? Why keep these stories secret?

Probably not. I mean, I'm a writer to I sell literally everything that has happened to me for money and/or web clicks. There's maybe a few things that I've only told my therapist, but they're just unpopular opinions about beloved pop stars.

You can read lots of those pop culture opinions on Eric's twitter (@oureric), or in his articles and column for Elle.com.

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...and call or reserve your tickets online today for MRS. HARRISON!