R. Eric Thomas is a Philadelphia based playwright and storyteller, as well as someone that I’ve been lucky to share a stage with and someone who brought me to tears with his TEDxPhilly talk. He is a First Person Arts story slam winner and he’s taken those stories to NYC, Baltimore, and up and down the East coast. And, today and tomorrow, he will be staging a new production, Always the Bridesmaid, that will “[take] the audience on a journey that begins in the pew of a black church in Baltimore and ends at an altar, stopping along the way to tell hilarious tales of dating disasters, crises of faith and massive consumption of wedding cake.”
Naturally, I had some questions for Mr. Thomas. Here’s what he had to say for himself.
1) I love the publicity shots of you and the wedding cake. Fans of yours can generally expect neuroses, stress eating, and boy troubles; if Woody Allen and famed comic strip Cathy had a black, gay baby, it’d be you. However, you’re pretty trim, have a man in your life, and are doing a piece on marriage, so will this show be a departure from those themes?
First of all, thank you for calling me trim in print! I’m going to put that on my business cards: “R. Eric Thomas—has a boyfriend and a waistline. Eat it!” In answer to your question, everything I do artistically comes from a core neurosis, a questioning that’s most often focused on relationships of various forms. The show I’m developing now is actually about the love-hate relationship gay men have with their bodies. It’s called The Kerri Strug-gle; the stress eating will continue. I think Woody Allen and Cathy are apt comparisons because they both grew and matured but retain their basic anxieties. This show, Always the Bridesmaid, was born during singledom but it’s about ideas larger than whether or not I have a boyfriend. It’s about the question of how I, as an individual gay man, and how we, as a community, can become integrated into the institution and framework of marriage. Whether what we have now, legally and culturally, and what we’ll gain will be legitimate. There aren’t easy or quick solutions to these questions. It’s a lifetime’s worth of work. Good for my art; bad for my waistline.
2) According to the press release, the show will question “what [marriage] means to the gay community, what it means to the individual and what it means to God.” Even just one of those is a big task, so I’m impressed. But the one the pops of the page is God. Are you part of a faith community? What does God, to your mind, think about marriage equality?
See, that’s the thing. I don’t know what God thinks. Through conversations and extraordinary experiences I’ve found my perception of God or a higher power has expanded since my childhood in a Baptist church. But, ultimately, I have only faith. As do we all. Spirituality, like love, is a uniquely internal process that we keep trying to externalize.
Faith is something that I wrestle with. I wouldn’t say I struggle, but I do wrestle. As I think we all should. I wrestle with a lot of things, usually humorously and on-stage, but with no less seriousness. I wrestle with love, too, because love and spirituality are made from the same fabric. I’ve chosen to include what I consider to be a personal and irresolute consideration in my work because I think it needs to be part of the conversation. My best friend, Jake Bowling, a social worker and community leader here in Philadelphia, frequently reminds me that the idea of the love of God is very rarely included in religious conversations, especially those having to do with the LGBT population. But as an LGBT person it’s something that exists in my life. Every story, every performance is a conversation in slow motion. So, I don’t’ purport to have any answers about what God thinks or wants, but I’m very willing to share my experience in hopes that we all might feel free to.
3) Many LGBT activists working on issues like employment non-discrimination and homelessness say that marriage is sucking all the air (and the money) out of the room, and many paint it as a primarily white, middle and upper class issue. What does marriage (and marriage equality) mean to you personally?
Marriage is a crucial part of my personhood. Somewhere along the line it stopped being a political abstraction and started, I suppose, making sense as a possible part of my life. I’ve been extraordinarily influenced by Audre Lourde’s “There Is No Heirarchy of Oppressions”. I take all the various issues that affect those around me and affect me as a gay black man—and whatever other identities I have—and in my work I look at how they affect my personhood. I can’t really speak to the prioritization of issues because any disenfranchisement still results in an individual who is being robbed of their personhood.
For me, then, it’s about visibility. My wheelhouse isn’t in the political arena and I don’t have any money whatsoever to donate to anything. But I have time; I have my voice. The arts is the place where all our issues blend together into a conversation. I don’t set out to convince people that one thing is more important than another, but in this moment marriage is something that’s on my mind. I’ve found myself in casual conversations suddenly rattling off the many ways that legal recognition benefits a couple and the tragic consequences that can and do result when misfortune strikes a couple that cannot be legally married. It’s not an issue to me; it’s my life. It’s the lives of those I love. The politics has seeped into my personhood.
4) You say that at a certain point, “You stop getting invited to keggers and start getting invited to showers. The feeling is a peculiar mix of joy and absolute dread.” Was their one particular wedding that was a watershed moment for you?
One of my brothers, who is three years younger than I am, got married about a year ago. I was in between disastrous codependencies at the time and went stag. As the kids say, I started to feel some kind of way. Something clicked. My parents have been married for over 30 years but there was something about seeing my brother, my contemporary for all intents and purposes, truly in love, standing at an altar professing his desire to be his wife’s partner—they used the word partner, which I latched on to like a life raft. Always the Bridesmaid mostly takes place on the plan trip to that wedding where I found something surprising buried beneath all the cynicism I’ve constructed around my gay identity, all the animus I have toward Maggie Gallagher, all the feigned ambivalence I assume to ward off disappointment. I found hope.
Also, the cake was incredibly good. It was a 5-tiered strawberry shortcake. I had four slices. I took three more home wrapped in aluminum foil. Basically, I want to get married because that’s where you find the most cake.
5) Imagine that I’m going through my mail in the not to distant future and, lo and behold, the invitation to your wedding is in there. What am I expecting when I arrive to the ceremony?
Honey, expect everything. Ev. Ree. Thing. The dress is formal beach wear—square cut trunks with tuxedo stripes; bow ties. No cumberbuns, please. Because my favorite things are carbs and questionable decision-making, I want to have a macaroni and cheese bar where you can throw whatever you want into a custom-made mac and cheese: 20 different cheeses, bacon, curants, foie gras, Swedish Fish. Whatever. There will also be a cake buffet because why have one huge cake when you can have 12? Why haven’t more people thought of this? Can you get me the number for TheKnot.com? I have some suggestions.
It’s going to be a quiet, private affair. Only about 1,000 people. Gay socialites and black church ladies in Easter hats. I’ve just started the seating chart; I’ve got you at a table with Beyonce and Frank Ocean; I hope that’s okay!
Knowing the success of Mr. Thomas’ previous, consistently sold out shows, I expect Always the Bridsemaid to be returning to the stage, and perhaps on a stage near you,after it’s inaugural run.
J. Rudy Flesher, blogs here when not fulfilling his duties as the Field Manager for Philly4Philly, a grassroots fundraising initiative to fund non-profits meeting the basic needs of Philadelphians. He is a Philadelphia based performing artist, author, and actor, holds a B.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies from The College of New Jersey, and is an award-winning feminist scholar. He also sits on the boards of the William Way LGBT Community Center, Young Involved Philadelphia, and The Spruce Foundation.
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