When January Feels Like Summer, Cori Thomas‘ fanciful urban comedy-drama about Harlem residents on the edge of leaping forward in their lives, completes its New York City premiere run on June 22 at Ensemble Studio Theatre. Thomas fielded some questions about her background, her magic-infused script and her approach to craft.
The staging of the multicultural play that features African-American, East Indian and transgender characters is a co-production of Page 73 Productions and EST. Daniella Topol directs. Its world premiere was produced by City Theatre in Pittsburgh in 2010.
This is the New York playwright’s mainstage Manhattan debut as a playwright, though her work has been produced and developed around the county.
As pointed out in my recent feature in TDF Stages, When January Feels Like Summer introduces us to Devaun and Jeron, 20-year-old fast food employees with no path to the future but a great need to be heard. They interact with Nirmala, a Harlem bodega owner of East Asian descent whose husband is brain dead and whose brother Ishan has begun transitioning from male to female. Joe, an African-American sanitation worker with marital debris in his past, has taken an interest in the cloistered Nirmala. The play and production received an enthusiastic review from Charles Isherwood in The New York Times.
The cast includes Dion Graham, Mahira Kakkar, J. Mallory McCree, Debargo Sanyal and Maurice Williams.
What was your first moment of inspiration for When January Feels Like Summer? Was it a character? An idea? A conflict?
Cori Thomas: I was on a train and sat across from two young African American men who were discussing a woman with awful teeth. They used terrible, disrespectful words and I was on verge of putting in iPod headphones to tune them out. Instead, I listened, and as I became familiar with their cadence and language pattern and was able to translate, I realized they actually cared about this woman.
It was a revelation, and a lesson on how we make judgments on people. I realized I was wrong about them and what they were talking about, and how listening rather than just hearing can make a world of difference.
In our pop culture, we’re very used to seeing African-American characters have contact and conflict with white characters. It was refreshing to see African-American characters interact with East Indian characters in your play. What about these communities interested you? Are you culturally black or South Asian? Do you pull from personal experience?
Cori Thomas: I love to put unusual multi-ethnic combinations on stage and see them work things out. I was born in New York, but grew up all over the world, as my dad was a diplomat. Neither parent spoke the same language and (they) have different racial heritage. Also, I was a mother’s helper one summer in an East Indian home. Someone once said to me “You are the disapora,” which made me laugh but is quite accurate. If I were going to give myself a label, though — what with the “one drop (of blood)” rule and all that — I am African American.
There is a certain tension and threat of violence in the play. At the end of Act One, Joe calls Devaun “trouble,” and Devaun has a temper — or at least a show of temper, talking about violence, the use of a gun. You thwart our expectations, and the play becomes more about awakenings and possibility. Was there always “hope” in your play, or was there a draft that took a different turn?
Cori Thomas: I don’t want to spoil it for people but…I (had) the danger expectations myself, and grew to love and respect these characters so much I had to find an alternate but viable solution (to violence). The solution is unlikely but not impossible. It is my hope that an audience would hope it would happen that way. I think I wanted the experience I had on the subway car to be reflected over and over: You think one thing about a person and they turn out different, or you think one thing will happen and something else does.
What role does “hope” play in your other plays?
Cori Thomas: I have a slight case of Anne Frankitis.
If we compare Devaun and Jeron to other young New York City adults and school-age kids we see in subways — say, after school — your characters are surprisingly moderate in their use of epithets and profanity and shows of misogyny.
Cori Thomas: I wanted to capture the rhythms of today’s language yet have what the characters say totally understandable and universal. I challenged myself to figure out a way to not use the N word, or total disrespect toward women, when writing them… I wanted to see if I could capture some “rough” language without necessarily using all the necessary “rough” words.
Were you consciously trying to avoid or subvert cultural stereotypes in the play?
Cori Thomas: I don’t think a lot while writing but, yes, I am trying to get the audience to see the outer and inner personalities of these characters as I did with those young men that day… I want us to think one thing and discover something else.
What was the process of finding the voices for these characters?
Cori Thomas: I listen and observe a lot. I always have an iPod with me but it is not always on. It’s a good disguise when eavesdropping. When I begin writing a play, I have no plan. I begin to hear the voices of the characters and feel their feelings as they speak and just try to write what they say as they do. I use a lot of ellipses and repetition, which dramaturgs hate. It’s not dramatically sound, but it is natural. I like a combination of naturalism and theatricality.
Does reading and research inspire you?
Cori Thomas: Yes, because I don’t plan the plot of my plays. What happens is: I read or hear about situations and store them in my brain and they suddenly will reappear while writing. At that point, I usually remember and will delve deeper into whatever it is. I usually write about things that fascinate, move, surprise or upset me. It can take years from trigger to play. I’ll keep thinking (and) thinking about whatever it is.
Do you ever outline your plays, or are you an impressionistic writer, conjuring what strikes you and stitching it together?
Cori Thomas: No outline. It’s closer to channeling than anything. The more I stay out of its way, I find, the better.
I can’t help thinking the play is about beginnings: People on the verge. When the play was complete, what idea spoke most prominently to you?
Cori Thomas: The beginning moment to show the world who you are inside, as Devaun says.
A transgender character — Ishan/Indira — is seeking transition from male to female. What sort of research did you do?
Cori Thomas: I watched a lot of documentaries and read articles and books, and in Pittsburgh the dress rehearsal was before an entire audience of transexual, transgender, LGBT folks and they approved. I try really hard to make sure what I say is as accurate as possible. The circumstances may be implausible but not impossible.
What neighborhood do you live in, or what neighborhoods have you lived in, and how does your residency in New York City inform the play?
Cori Thomas: I currently live in Brooklyn, these last two years. But lived in Harlem before that for 17 years, and before that the East Village for about 10 years. In many ways I place my plays in locations I know and recognize.
Was there a character that surprised you in the writing process? Someone who took a turn that you did not expect?
Cori Thomas: Firstly, I heard Nirmala and Ishan’s voices and sat down to write them, and the boys popped up first out of the blue — and so I wrote that scene. At first I thought I was writing two plays. The whole play surprised me as the story unfolded.
Magic is very much a part of this play. The Hindu god Ganesha has great power over New York City. Is “magic” specific to this play, or does it touch your other work, too?
Cori Thomas: It was a miracle. I had a little Ganesha statue on my desk with no understanding of the importance of Ganesha to Hinduism. I dreaded writing the “date scene” because I had fallen in love with my characters, and in procrastinating, looked him up, and he ended up saving the day for me! That surprised and delighted me. And I made sure to give him a position of honor (in the plot and on the set).
Was theatregoing a part of your childhood? Did your folks take you?
Cori Thomas: I grew up in New York, Cameroun and several European countries. Theatre was mostly just seen at school. I felt an oddity as a child: painfully shy and also biracial, etc. No friend had a family like mine. At age 12 I saw a high school performance of The Glass Menagerie in Switzerland. I identified with Laura Wingfield, who was so odd, and was so moved by the experience, I knew theatre would be a part of my life.
You have also worked as an actress.
Cori Thomas: I do not look for acting work anymore. From time to time, though, I do still get asked to do something. A reading or a workshop. At EST I have acted in a Marathon play — playing an East Indian, ironically. I feel I approach writing the way I do acting. I try to create as thorough and playable a character as possible. Actors seem to appreciate the characters I write.
When did you make the transition from actress to playwright?
Cori Thomas: About 10 years ago. I was a really young mom and got divorced and had to get a full-time job to support myself and my daughter. But if I look back, I have always been a writer. In grade school, when they’d ask me to write a story, I always wrote monologues. When I “retired” to get a “real” job. The creative urge spilled out anyway. One day I heard a character’s voice in my head and just knew it was a play and wrote what she said and then someone answered and so on, and I wrote it all down word for word without judgment or interference. I never planned to be a playwright.
What playwrights do you love, and which do you see as having influenced your work?
Cori Thomas: Tennessee Williams, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Lorraine Hansberry, Athol Fugard, August Wilson, Sam Shepard and on and on. Lots of current people too but don’t want to leave someone off the list.
What’s next for you? What are you working on?
Cori Thomas: I was commissioned to write parts two and three of my Pa’s Hat trilogy set in Liberia, West Africa and spanning from 2000-2010. I do not see Liberia in literature enough and feel a responsibility to put it and its history on the map. I also started a non-profit focused on Liberia, The Pa’s Hat Foundation. Trying to raise funds to build a boys school for the sons of former child soldiers of West Point Slum, and programs for the former combatants themselves who did not get the chance to go to school. It’s a devastating place. I have a friend who began a girls school there. We will partner and have the same curriculum and also introduce arts to an environment that is ravaged by war and struggle. I also want to build a theatre in Liberia — there are none — so those people can see my plays and those of so many others!
Cori Thomas’ other plays include Pa’s Hat (Pillsbury House Theatre, MN); My Secret Language of Wishes (Various theaters and University productions including Mixed Blood, MN); The Princess, The Breast, and, The Lizard; The Unusual Love Life of Bedbugs and Other Creatures; Waking Up; His Daddy; our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. Her plays have been developed and produced at Sundance Theatre Lab, Goodman Theatre, City Theatre Company (Pittsburgh), Page 73, Playwrights Horizons, Lark Play Development Center, The Ensemble Studio Theatre, Going To The River, Pillsbury House Theatre, Mixed Blood Theatre, Penumbra Theatre, Passage Theatre, The Playwrights Realm, New Federal Theatre, New Georges, The Black Rep (St. Louis), The New Black Fest, and Queens Theatre in the Park. She has been commissioned by South Coast Rep Theatre, EST/Sloan Foundation, NYSCA/Page 73, NYSCA/EST and Pillsbury House Theatre.