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‘Bubbleland’ helped playwright R. Eric Thomas avoid the perils of growing up in West Baltimore

The playwright R. Eric Thomas grew up in a West Baltimore neighborhood so riddled with drugs that scenes for “The Wire” were filmed on his street.

When he came home from college, he’d occasionally find addicts sitting on his front stoop, customers of an open-air drug market operating nearby.

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“I would ask them, ‘Are you real people, or are you actors on ‘The Wire’?’” he said. “Omar’s grandmother’s house was on our block.”

The world outside Robert and Judith Thomas’ house was chaotic, frightening and occasionally violent.

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“But inside was different,” writes Thomas, now 41, in his bestselling essay collection, “Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America.”

“Inside, our futures were brimming with possibilities and our backs were straight and we had as many choices available to us as any of our contemporaries.”

So great was the contrast that the Thomas family ironically referred to their home as “Bubbleland.”

Bubbles appear fragile, popping at the merest touch. But the bubble built by the Thomas family was strong enough to float Eric and his two brothers to safety.

Thomas, who now lives in Philadelphia, is an author who writes books, television screenplays and openhearted comedies for live theater. A production of his “Crying on Television” is running through June 26 at Everyman Theatre, performed by a quartet of gifted actors that includes local theater standout Erika Rose.

Thomas’ young adult novel, ”The Kings of B’More,” was published in late May by Penguin Books. In February, he was presented with the key to his hometown by Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby.

His two brothers also have thrived; he said one is an elementary school principal and the other works in cybersecurity. As children, each boy had his own tiny desk set up in the living room where they did homework. The only TV shows the kids were allowed to watch were on Maryland Public Television.

“My parents chose me and my brothers,” the playwright said. “They chose us. My father worked three jobs including delivering newspapers. And my mother didn’t buy new clothes for herself for 10 years so they could afford to send us to private schools.

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“I can put my work on stage today because my parents chose our minds and our expanded world views. They chose us.”

‘Theater is like church to me’

“Crying on Television” is about four strangers who meet in a New York apartment building and bond over their love for the same TV series. Over several weeks, they form a community.

“Monocultures are very interesting to me,” Thomas said, “and in many ways, TV has become our society’s shared language. That’s starting to disappear. I think 600 shows came out last year. What does it mean when no one is watching the same stories anymore?”

Thomas was a writer on two of those shows: the final seasons of “Better Things” for FX and “Dickinson” for Apple TV.

In addition, “Crying on Television” is one of three of his plays to have regional productions this spring. “The Folks at Home” had its world premiere at Baltimore Center Stage in February and “Backing Track” opened at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company in March.

“Eric’s humor and dialogue are off the charts,” said Stephanie Ybarra, artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage. “He writes in the way that real people speak, but he leans into the funniest aspects of that. His shows tackle some incredibly thorny subjects, but he does it with a light touch.”

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Thomas loves switching between genres because it allows him to tell stories in different ways. But playwriting remains his favorite form.

“Theater is like church to me,” he said. “The moment I hear my characters’ voices in my head and the story starts coming alive for me, I get really excited.”

Though Bubbleland ferried the Thomas boys past the dangerous forces that consumed the lives of some of their contemporaries, the world has many sources of darkness. No bubble can insulate against them all. As a Black gay man, Thomas grappled with two forms of prejudice.

Thomas attended Park School, an institution he loves and where he received a top-rate education.

“It was the exact right school for me,” he said. “They taught to the child. I felt seen there, and I felt empowered.”

But the student body is predominantly white, and Park is where Eric was called the N-word for the first time by a young classmate.

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Likewise, it was at Columbia University where Thomas struggled to come to terms with his sexuality. He is gay, and that was not an option for the church in which he was raised.

“I didn’t go to a church where the pastor delivered spittle-flecked invective about the dangers of homosexuals,” he wrote, “I went to a church where gays didn’t exist, and if you were one, you ceased to exist in the eyes and lives of the congregation.”

To make matters worse, Thomas believes he was born with a depressive temperament.

“I was fearful and sad as a kid,” he said.

In his late teens and early 20s, he edged perilously close to despair.

“Every time I walked over a bridge or stood on a subway platform, I had to talk myself out of stepping over the edge,” he writes. “I came to believe I was a monster and that I deserved to feel the way I felt.”

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‘He can read the room’

Thomas dropped out of Columbia University and eventually returned to Baltimore, where he lived in is parents’ basement.

But even when his life was at its murkiest, he never gave up. His parents showed him every day that they still believed in him. So, how could he not believe in himself?

He began to figure out the puzzle, piece by piece, and to fit those pieces together. Gradually, they began to form a picture that made sense.

“Life is hard,” Thomas said. “One thing I learned from my parents is to say: ‘O.K., and so what?’

“It’s about staying in the room.”

In 2001, Thomas enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and took a playwriting course from associate professor Susan McCully. She realized immediately that Thomas was talented and encouraged him to keep writing.

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“He was a mess of a kid,” McCully recalled. “But he was also the funniest person I had ever met. Eric has a comic lens that is just razor-sharp. He would be in class talking about scenes he was working on, and I would be laughing so hard that tears would be running down my face.”

She thinks that Thomas’ otherness perversely might have helped hone his voice. Because Thomas is positioned outside mainstream culture, he readily picks up on its quirks and absurdities, its small but significant shifts in direction.

“He can read the room and read the politics and come up with a gentle way to point out the funny incongruity,” she said. “That is a gift.

“In many ways, the most important playwrights in American theater today are the rising, queer Black writers who are opening a window into this particular cultural moment and redefining it in a really phenomenal way.”

‘I have an addiction to hope’

By 2012, Thomas was in his first serious relationship with another man and brought him home for Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone accepted them as a couple, including a much-admired older cousin and macho war veteran.

Two years later, he met the love of his life, a Presbyterian pastor. They married in 2016.

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That same year, Thomas stumbled across an online photo of President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto walking down a red carpet. Thomas posted the photo on Facebook and wrote:

“Thank the Lord we still live in a universe where three world leaders can strut into a room like they’re the new interracial male cast of ‘Sex and the City.’”

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The post went viral. An editor for “Elle” magazine saw it and asked Thomas if he wanted to write a daily humor column.

“Eric Reads the News” was a success. Eventually, the column lead to book and television contracts and play commissions — and by the end of 2020, Thomas was able to quit his day job to write full-time.

“I don’t gravitate toward comedy because I’m depressed,” he said. “I gravitate toward comedy because I’m depressed and I have an addiction to hope.”

For Thomas, hope isn’t handed out like candy on Halloween. It isn’t something stumbled upon by a lucky few, like a $20 bill on the sidewalk. It is an achievement that must be earned.

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“Sometimes you have to work really hard for hope,” he said. “It’s like a marriage.

“I am committed to hope.”

“Crying on Television” runs through June 26 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Tickets cost $29-$69. Call 410-752-2208 or visit everymantheatre.org.


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