The Reflections of O: Oliver Thomas' Reflections Reviewed
Written by Toney Blaire
Friday, 21 January 2011 23:15
After missing out on Saturday due to a sell-out crowd, and wisely purchasing Sunday matinee tickets on the spot, we returned to the Anthony Bean Theater today to attend Oliver Thomas's Reflections, written and directed by Anthony Bean and starring the former councilman. Again the place was packed, again folks were turned away.
We took our seat in the last row on the right side, still empty but for an African-American gentleman in a suit who wore a gold name tag designating him as a deacon. Soon our row filled in, and ushers brought chairs into the side aisle. We were told the concession stand would be open for another ten minutes. There was a loose, celebratory air in the room, many people who knew each other and caught up on the latest. Probably 80/20 black/white, and markedly female. In front of us sat
a young woman between a small boy and a silver-haired lady. The deacon and I tried in vain to get a program from David Cuthbert, the former TP theater critic who for some reason was distributing a few, rare extra copies. Finally, a voice welcomed us and the lights went down. Someone called out that the empty reserved seats are for the cast members' wives. Laughter.
On a living room set of matching couches backed by an elevated platform with dining room table and chairs, a woman sips from a mug and waits, tidying up. Oliver Thomas enters stage right, home from work. He looks somber, checks himself in a mirror, then descends to the living room. The woman, his wife, comes to greet him. He tells her he is in trouble. She asks what it could be, and how it could be any worse than his abandonment of his family during the storm, when the councilman was too busy rescuing citizens to care for his evacuated wife and daughter. At one point, she says "fuck" and the silver-haired lady in front of me shakes her head. This is a Sunday crowd. The deacon says something about "the pastor's wife’ll probably walk out soon." OT asks his wife to listen: he could be going to jail. Lights down.
Lights up and 6 clergymen sit in the living room. They refer to themselves as"mighty men of god," and wait for OT to emerge from his bedroom. Apparently he is cooped up with his wife and Jim Singleton. In the meantime, the clergymen argue about the proper course for Thomas, and the cause of his errant ways. A bishop quotes the Eighth Commandment and argues that anyone who breaks the law must pay the penalty. A pastor scoffs and describes in general terms the "shadow government" theory: white supremacy is re-asserting itself in the city, trying to drive out every last black politician. What Thomas did, he says, was nothing compared to the white man's pilfering over the ages. The others join the argument, but all agree on one question: Why? Why would Thomas do such a thing, for such a small sum (20 large)? Why didn't he come to them if he needed money? It didn't make sense.
Singleton, Thomas, and Mrs. Thomas enter and Singleton thanks everyone for coming. Thomas delivers an explanation in the diction of a politician before an audience, taking the blame and asking for the clergymen's support at his resignation news conference. He notes that among them, the clergymen represent 150,000 parishioners (which is a big number, big enough to win a lot of elections, even in 2010 with white supremacy in supposed full force and all; one wonders what those clergy are doing with that number today). He needs them. He and the pastor joke about the lifeguard job Thomas secured for the latter's son, who in fact couldn't even swim.
Finally, the bishop asks the question that perplexed an entire community: Why? Thomas tells of being a poor boy from the Ninth Ward, about eating grits three times a day, and of being surrounded by wealthy patrons. His was a weak moment in a world of temptation. The preachers forgive him and one of them sings "Lift Every Voice and Sing." All but the bishop promise to face the media with him tomorrow. When they exit, Mrs. Thomas asks why Oliver hadn't told them the truth, about the racetrack? She says this almost in passing, amidst a series of comic jousts that end with the hard reality: her husband is facing hard time.
The set changes to a brick wall and a lone spotlight, where three actors stand back-to-back-to-back, rotating into the light one at a time. They are a three-headed media hydra, each reporting in bland, rapid terms the charges and the scene in the courtroom, then turning to interview two onlookers and the present clergymen. Again, the dispute between the bible-quoting bishop and the politically-shrewd pastor plays out, while the onlookers express the sadness of a community that believed in the councilman and their disbelief at his downfall. The pastor says they need to start keeping an eye on the Justice Department.
INTERMISSION: pretty long.
Two sections of cyclone fence topped with barbed wire frame six chairs, with a brick backdrop. We are in federal prison, where Thomas sits in silence as 5 other prisoners argue over their convictions. In the spirit of the setting, the language gets colorful, causing more headshaking in the audience. One prisoner is a former dealer, one a former kingpin, and another a transsexual bank robber. A judge sits next to Thomas, and the two of them take a tongue-lashing from their fellow prisoners, who point out the hypocrisy of politicians who contribute only empty promises, thereby deepening the tragic conditions that necessitate the escapism of drugs.
Here we appear to be at an important point, a dramatization of the socio-economic divide between a political class and an underclass and the complaints between them. The divide comes into sharper focus when the judge and the criminals fall away and Thomas is joined by a young New Orleanian currently serving a 22-year sentence. At first, the councilman tries to explain to the former drug dealer that he's got his whole life in front of him, that there's a lot to be learned during incarceration. This is Thomas in his accustomed role as an older brother figure, talking sense to the youth and pleading for reason. If it feels like we've skipped an epiphany and moved right on to lessons, that's because the epiphany is still to come.
In several conversations, the young man explains the streets of Gert Town, how he came up in them, the proliferation of guns, the lack of male role models or hope, the
pointlessness of workaday life when compared to the cash of the fast lane, the whole bundle of nihilistic self-images that consume so many lives in the inner city. He poignantly describes the sick pride he felt when New Orleans won the title of "Murder Capital." There is not much new in the litany of brutal facts, but the actor delivers them admirably, in a voice recognizable to anyone remotely familiar with his endangered demographic.
What is surprising is the reaction of Oliver Thomas. For most of these dialogues, Thomas serves as a shocked interviewer, asking again and again, "Do you mean to tell me [insert awful realization],” e.g., “Do you mean to tell me no one played ball with you? Instead they taught you how to get shot??” It is as if the councilman, who grew up in the Ninth Ward but soon made his way to political fundraisers and the favor of powerful clergymen, has lived as a politician in New Orleans for decades without understanding how hopelessly violent life can be for young black males.
The epiphany is frightening, both for Thomas and, one would think, for anyone who praised him as a "man of the people." The city councilman-at-large didn't know? He didn't know that these kids feel that a gun is the only protector they have in the world? Played out and maudlin as she may be, I bet Jackie Clarkson could at least rattle off some superficial version of the young man's lament. That Thomas bases his play around a jailhouse revelation of the facts that surrounded him in his hometown, indeed that were in some part his responsibility to fight against, is deeply troubling.
During a visit with Mrs. Thomas, he tells of this new knowledge, and of his determination to do something about upon his release. She tells him that he's
not a politician anymore and that he'll soon move to Oakdale prison, where he'll be closer to home. None of this matters to Thomas, who talks about a talent show
among the prisoners, which leads to a rap song performed onstage by two young men. It's a good song, about coffins and the dangers of street life. Apparently, it sums up everything Oliver Thomas learned while in prison.
Next is a brief meeting with Edwin Edwards, serving time in Oakdale. Appropriately enough, if belatedly, Edwards broaches the subject of gambling, and how Thomas can beat addiction. We're left to wonder how that demon arose and was slain in real life, and to hope that Thomas has support in his fight.
Finally, we return to the living room. As cast members drift onstage, Oliver tells of a fellow prisoner who died due to a lack of medical attention. He reaffirms his belief in God, punctuated by a final song, "Best in Me."
Facing one's community for the first time after such a grave disappointment is an unenviable challenge. Credit to Thomas for taking the stage, for putting himself up there to be seen, judged, and forgiven. He should be congratulated for trying to transform his own experience into a plea for the youth of New Orleans. As so many of the people onstage and offstage say, Thomas loves his city.
What is troubling, if we are to believe Mr. Thomas, is how little he actually knew about daily life in that city. If, as the pastor says in Act 1, a plot is at hand to bring down black politicians, we must ask: what was the previous plot? Was it Uptown that kept Thomas from understanding Gert Town? While in power for three decades, how did the political class now under fire protect the generation that continues to face gunfire daily? Busy giving lifeguard jobs to the non-swimming sons of powerful pastors, were leaders like Thomas that unaware of the sons of the unfortunate? Is the divide between black politician and black poor so great that the last popular black councilman spent his years in a leadership position totally oblivious of the conditions in our poorest neighborhoods?
If so, one hopes that black and white leaders will take Thomas's pleas seriously. One hopes that we don't need more plays to make them understand.
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