An Interview with Cori Thomas
Written by Victoria Myers
September 28th, 2014
Playwright Cori Thomas describes herself as a writer who no one knows what to do with—someone who doesn’t easily fit in a box. Well, we think boxes should only be used for storage (storing shoes, in her case) so this suits us just fine. Luckily, it also suited Women’s Project Theatre and Ensemble Studio Theatre, who are co-producing her play When January Feels Like Summer beginning on October 1st . Cori likes to keep the plot a surprise for the audience, but she had plenty to tell us about inspiration and what types of worlds she likes to see presented on stage. And we will tell you that When January Feels Like Summer won the 2011 American Theatre Critics Osborn Award for best new play. Her plays have been produced or developed with Sundance Theatre Lab, Page 73, The Goodman Theatre, and New Georges (just to name a few). So everyone put those boxes of shoes in the closet where they belong, and check out Cori Thomas.
Your play When January Feels Like Summer is opening at the Women’s Project Theatre. One of the things that’s intriguing about the play is that it puts a neighborhood of New York on stage that’s not always depicted. Could you tell us a little about that?
I think that maybe because I’m the child of immigrants—I’m a first generation American-born person—that I kind of see the world through those eyes. Both of my parents were from different countries, so I’m also biracial and multi-cultural. And, not only that, but my dad was a diplomat, so I lived in lots of different countries growing up and went to schools with lots of different people from different countries. So I think I see the world as a multi-cultural place, and New York certainly is. I actually didn’t realize that I have always written plays that sort of reflect that; there is always a multi-cultural aspect to my plays. Someone pointed it out to me and I was like, “Oh yeah.” So it wasn’t a choice that I made.
It also seems like you’re depicting a cast of characters in a way that’s different than how they’re usually presented.
I think it’s just something that, because of who I am and where I come from, I just do it without thinking. I think, in my own way, I’m trying to break down those walls between differences. I think if we’re able to see different groups of people together that you don’t usually see together, first of all, it shows you, without having to tell you, that people can get along in the world. And the second thing is that I try really hard to make you feel for an “other.” I think that helps breaks down barriers and walls. I think growing up feeling a little bit other—because of my parents being from different countries, not speaking the same language, being different races—I always felt a little odd, so I think I’m very sensitive to oddness. Any type of oddness makes my antenna go up and I identify with it. I always wanted to fit in, so I try to let whatever that other [character] is fit into the world also.
This is actually the second production of When January Feels Like Summer in NYC.
It’s the second production of this actual show—it’s a remount. It was done in June. It was a co-production between Ensemble Studio Theatre and Page 73 and it was well received. I think these co-productions are a really good thing, because it’s a way for two companies to get together and put on a show. [Women’s Project] Theatre has now come on with Ensemble Studio Theatre [to produce the show]. It’s kind of amazing, because they hadn’t taken down the set, so it’s the same set. It’s the same cast except one cast member who got married and is in Bali on his honeymoon. But aside from that, everything is pretty much the same.
What’s it like, as a writer, getting to do a second production in NYC?
It is a unique and amazing gift. It’s always a gift to have a play done again. You get to go in and tweak things. And, with it going up again so soon, even the actors are getting that opportunity to fix little things. We’re making tiny, little adjustments. So it’s not really going to be different, but it will probably be even clearer. So it’s a gift.
What’s it like working at the Women’s Project Theatre?
It’s my first time working with them. I’ve gone to see their plays for years and I think the work they do is top-notch. I’m really proud that this is the first play under [artistic director] Lisa McNulty’s leadership. It’s cool to be backed by a company of women. I’m a woman, so I support anything that has to do with women. I think that’s really cool.
And you’re collaborating with your current director again soon, right?
I have a reading being done by The Naked Expedition Project. [Director] Daniella Topol and I are doing a reading of My Secret Language of Wishes on October 13th. And it’s free.
Do you see any themes in your work?
Well, I think it is that there’s always some sort of “other” in my plays—either a person who is a little different, or a subject that’s a little off or different. I’m not a political writer. I don’t write to try and bring some subject to light or expound on it, but I do usually have serious subjects in my plays. I think there’s always a multi-cultural theme. Trying to understand an “other” so it’s not so other, because I think that’s something I struggle with. I’ve always heard that artists revisit the same thing over and over and over, and their life’s work is delving in, and it usually takes different forms. All of my plays are all different styles and subjects—I write very differently each time—but a few people who know my work say, “I can see the Cori Thomas of the play.” There’s something in there that tells you wrote it.
What’s your process like as a writer?
There’s something in the world that will just stop me for a minute. This play, for instance, When January Feels Like Summer, is the third play that I’ve written that’s based on something that I saw on the street or in my travels, or my day-to-day life that just caught me and gripped me. So what happens is this thing will happen, and I’ll just keep thinking about it and thinking about it. It might be years and, all of a sudden it will take over, and the characters will start speaking in my head and I’ll know, okay, a play has been born now and I’ll start writing. So that’s the way frequently it happens. Or something will happen in my life that I’m trying to understand. So it’s usually something that bothers me on some level and that I need to understand, and it’s a way of figuring it out. I think I writer character driven plays. I’m really into people. I love to study people; the way people put on certain faces and want the world to see them one way, but they’re actually another way. That sort of thing fascinates me.
You touched on this before, but how do you think growing up all over the world affected what you wanted to write about?
I think that, first of all, it influences the subjects. I think that my subjects aren’t just based in one neighborhood or one type of people because I come from that type of background myself, but also living in different countries and being exposed to different types of people. I think it’s all just part of me trying to make the world as full as possible in the plays. But I think I write fairly New York style plays—plays that are about or in New York. I do bring that multi-cultural aspect into New York because it is here.
You’re working on a trilogy of plays about Liberia. Could you tell us a little about that?
My dad was Liberian. I think that Liberia has been really under-represented in literature. I think Liberia gets such a bad rap. It had this horrific war that lasted eighteen years, and it has the legacy of Charles Taylor and child soldiers. Then we got this little bit of a bright light shining on it with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf when she won the Nobel Prize. But now Ebola has taken over and no one will ever want to go there again. So I feel so bad. My dad died in 2009 and he’s buried there and was born there, and my grandparents are buried there. I feel a bond to the country. I never really lived there, but I visited a lot as a child. I have a Liberian and an American passport. So I feel connected to that country—it’s part of my history and my heritage. I decided I would make it one of my missions to make sure that there’s some sort of archive of material that relates to it. Just to inform the world. When I was growing up, I would tell people I was from Liberia, and no one ever knew about it. They didn’t know where the country was or what it was about. So I just want to teach people a little about it.
People sometimes just see Africa as Africa.
Right, and it’s [made up of] countries. I wrote a play, and it’s dealing with immigrants working in a supermarket in New York. Two of the characters are from two different African countries, and one of them had this speech where she says, “In Africa the weather…” I had a reading of the play and a friend of mine, who is from Uganda, came to the reading and said, “Why would you say that? As an African person why would you say that, since they’re different countries? Do you think of Africa as just one continent?” And I don’t, and he was right. I think Liberia is its own place, and I think each country has its own style and rhythm. So I try my best—and I know there are other writers too—I just do what little I can just to expose it.
We read that you were interested in taking these plays and doing them in Liberia.
I would love to. I’ve written two of the plays for the trilogy and I’m about to start writing the third. The first was produced in Minneapolis, which has the largest population of Liberians in America. So that was the coolest thing in the world. I happened to be in Liberia recently, and I did a little reading of it there, and everyone was like, “Oh, we want to see it.” There’s no theatre though to even do it in. After the war, the country is still in such shambles. I’m trying, in this trilogy, to sort of tell the history of Liberia. It’s three visits that I made from 2000 to 2010. I went to Liberia in 2000 with my dad, and that’s the first play. Then in 2006, we went back for the inauguration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. And then I took him to be buried in 2010, and that was my last trip with my dad to Liberia. So I realized I could write three plays. The plays are sort of these trips, but within them, I try to tell what’s happening in the country and the history.
And you started your own foundation too, right?
It’s called the Pa’s Hat Foundation, which is based on the plays. The first play came out of an experience that I had when I was with my dad in Liberia in 2000, and I was almost shot by a child solider. So, when I was writing a play about that experience, I was writing a child solider, and so I started to try and understand what it would be like to be taken from your home at age nine and trained to become a killer. What child wants to do that? No one is born wanting to do that. I realized that at age twelve I saw The Glass Menagerie and fell in love with the theatre, and here are all of these kids who, at age twelve, are doing unspeakable acts. So I felt some sort of compassion, and realized that I wanted to give them back some of what I had. I started a foundation to go back to Liberia to do drama-based workshops with former child soldiers. Just to introduce the idea of art as a means of expression to them. I started that with two other colleagues. We have now morphed into building a school for young boys who are the children of former child soldiers, and their dads can also take classes because most of them can’t read or write, and they want to.
What was the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
When I was twelve I went to see The Glass Menagerie in Switzerland. I went to see this high school production, and I’m going to guess that it wasn’t that good and that some of them didn’t speak English so well. But whatever it was, I was just spellbound and I fell in love with it. I identified with Laura Wingfield, who was odd and didn’t fit in and was shy. I was really shy, and I just couldn’t believe that I could feel what another character was feeling. And that was the moment that I knew theatre was it for me. I was twelve. But I wanted to act. I think I placed everything on that actress and what playing that character did for my soul. It took me years to move into writing. But I’ll never forget that moment of seeing that play and how it moved me.
Who were your heroes growing up?
These are the theatre people from back in the day who inspired me—I always feel a little bit bad because they’re all men—Tennessee Williams, Athol Fugard, and August Wilson. Those are the three top people who made my heart stop when I saw plays by them, and I think they changed me and have influenced my work quite intensely. Tennessee Williams because of seeing this odd character [Laura Wingfield] and being so moved. Athol Fugard wrote Master Harold and the Boys, and that’s a very personal story. It’s a play set in South Africa, and I recognized that world so well and had never seen it depicted on stage here. And the last was August Wilson. I think what he did was, I had never seen black people on stage in a play that wasn’t about slavery, but was just about regular life stuff. So I’d say those three were the most important influences on me early on.
Were there fictional characters, besides Laura Wingfield, who you identified with?
I liked Jo in Little Women a lot. I liked Harriett in Harriett the Spy. I loved the book Jane Eyre. I liked Laura in Little House on the Prairie.
Who are your top five female characters in plays?
1. Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie
2. Nora in A Doll’s House
3. Risa in Two Trains Running
4. Dakota in My Secret Language of Wishes (which I wrote)
5. Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire
When was the first moment you felt like a grown up?
I don’t know that I feel it yet. I think that maybe when my dad was really getting old. He was a lot older than my mom and was older when they had me. He was ninety-two when he died. And when he was ninety and would come and visit me, I had to sort of be the parent. I think I felt like a grownup then.
You didn’t come to playwriting through the MFA route. How do you think that affected your creative development?
I think it’s affected me because I think people didn’t take me very seriously for a while. I acted for many years. I never went to college to study writing; I have a theatre degree in acting. So I know plays, but I didn’t come out of one of those programs. So I don’t have that kind of resume. I’ve just plugged away at the work. I think you get better the more you do something. So I think by the time people started noticing me, I’d gotten a pretty good grip on my own of what I was doing, and my craft. I know what my vision is and I know how to say, “No, I’m not changing that,” whereas a new writer doesn’t always have that strength.
How do you think the theatre community can better talk about diversity?
Yeah, that would be a really cool thing. For instance, this play that I wrote, Pa’s Hat, which is set in Liberia, I think I finished the first draft around the time Ruined had just been done. So there were some theatre companies who would read it and say, “We really like this, but we just did Ruined.” Well, Ruined is set in the Congo and it is a war play but a totally different subject matter. Why can there only be one play set in an African country about a war? How many plays are there about divorce? But it’s like, “Oh, we’ve already done an African play.” So I get kind of insulted and offended by that sort of thing. So I think that’s something people need to understand—that there are so many stories to be told of other cultures. I find there becomes one token play that now represents a whole subject matter when it comes to a diversity issue, and that doesn’t happen to other plays. A playwright who is a female, when you get a reject—especially if you’re a person of color—it’s like, “Well, we were already doing an August Wilson play this season.” Does David Mamet get told, “We’re already doing a Tracy Letts play”?
We’d pay good money to see that happen.
Yeah, thank you. White men are rejected totally differently than the way women or people of color are rejected. So I think that’s where it really stands out to me. There’s one slot. And there are some ethnicities that don’t even have a slot. Everyone is fighting for one slot of diversity and it’s so silly.
How does that affect you as a creative person?
I’ve noticed there are also all of these lists that come out, and I’m never on any list. I’m not on the African playwrights list, the African-American list, the Latino list, I’m not on the women list, because people think I’m a man because of my name—no one knows what I am. So I don’t fit anywhere. I keep laughing because it’s a re-creation of what I’ve gone through my whole life on different levels. I don’t know what to do about it. I’ve just decided that I don’t fit in the box and it’s okay.
And going back to what you were saying before about representing New York on stage, it seems like it’s hugely underestimating the audience. New York is a diverse city.
I think people write what they know and I think that’s wonderful. I know I struggled with it when I was acting because I acted for many years. I don’t particularly look like any race, which means I could fit into many, but that worked against me because people would say, “We don’t know how to market you.” When you don’t fit into one slot, they don’t know what to do with you. And I think that’s been a problem with my plays. I mean, this play took years. There were four years between the first production and this one, and that’s a long time. I had pretty much given up that it would ever be done in New York. I was being told, “Well, we don’t know what audience to market this to,” because there are different cultures in there. They didn’t know, well, is it a black play or an East Indian play? And because I’ve become kind of aware of it, I’m not going to change to make it more one way.
We’ve definitely seen a theme of there being a woman slot or a person of color slot, and theatres not trusting that these are plays for a general audience.
I was at a TCG conference about diversity that was geared towards the board members and artistic directors of theatres—the board members and artistic directors are the ones with the power to decide what gets done. I was invited with Ensemble Studio Theatre to come along. It was so interesting to see how people don’t completely understand and, think that because there is the one play being done in February that well, we’re doing that, isn’t that great? And it is great. But I don’t think any of us wants the label. What we wish is that there was no label. That’s the thing. I think what we wish is that literary managers wouldn’t look at plays and divide them: man, woman, white, black. I think we wish they’d just look at plays and pick the plays based on plays. I think when you see a season of a lot of women that’s when you know that maybe someone is choosing it just based on the plays. Ensemble Studio Theatre does three plays a year and this year two were by women—women of color too. So that was something. The year I was at Sundance with When January Feels Like Summer was really cool because of six plays, five of them were by women. So you just know, when that happens, that it’s based on the plays. It was the subject matter of the plays that touched that literary manager’s heart, and I think that’s what you want to happen.
Do you feel like you might have less room for failure and experimentation?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like the one slot is so hard to get that, if you get it, god forbid you fail, you feel like that’s it. I don’t really put a lot of stock in reviews; if I’m happy with what’s there that’s fine with me. I don’t care about reviews for myself, but I care for the institutions that are producing it. These are little theatre companies that are taking some risks to do this play because it’s not a play that’s done easily. It was passed on by so many theatre companies who liked it, but I think it was the, “We don’t know how to market it,” thing. Theatre companies that take a risk on any kind of work are theatre companies that I love.
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
Producers can do more plays be female playwrights. Women go to the theatre more than men, so I don’t know why they think people want to see plays only by white men. I don’t get why they think 70% of it has to be by one gender and racial group. I don’t think there’s a group of men sitting in a room saying, “We’re not going to produce women.” I think it’s just like a club, and I think people who are in the club will be done, and historically those [white men] were the people in the club. But everyone is fighting to get in that door. I think just talking about it helps, and that it’s such an issue right now helps. I think companies like Women’s Project Theatre and New Georges that put good work out and make a point of having women seen helps. I think all of that helps.
You can follow Cori on Twitter: @corithyme.