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Handing Down the Verdict

In His Baltimore Playwriting Debut, 23-Year-Old R. Eric Thomas Sets Out to Explore What Effects Brown v. Board of Education Has Passed Down to his Generation

Sam Holden

By Waris Banks | Posted 5/19/2004

The Spectator runs through May 30 at the Run of the Mill Theater

It may seem otherworldly to students today to imagine separate "colored" and "white" schools. Fifty years ago, however, before the Supreme Court unanimously determined in Brown v. Board of Education that the doctrine of "separate but equal" in public schools was "inherently unequal," racial segregation was public policy. And yet, for today's young people state-sponsored segregation is little more than a textbook chapter, black-and-white footage, folklore from a grandparent.

Still, playwright R. Eric Thomas, a senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has come up with an imaginative and uncanny way to reconsider the 50th anniversary of this important decision. His play, The Spectator, running at Run of the Mill Theater through May 30, isn't a trite re-enactment of attorney Thurgood Marshall arguing before the high court. Instead, it focuses on the persistent racial tensions that endure today, despite half a century of court-ordered desegregation and civil-rights legislation.

Set in the present day in the fictional suburb of Mid-Atlantic City, The Spectator hinges on Meadowview, an elite private school, where the faculty and students are putting on a musical to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Brown ruling. The only problem: The school has no black students to play the parts of the African-Americans central to the case, such as Marshall and psychologist Kenneth Clarke. As the all-white cast tries to interpret black characters, two black audience members, named simply Jazz and The Woman in the script, look on, slowly becoming active participants in the onstage action. Soon they are providing a running commentary on The Spectator's play within a play, all the while remaining invisible to the white characters around them. The conflict onstage, Thomas says, is just one example of the ways in which race relations are constantly being reconsidered in the years after Brown.

The Spectator "takes the history and moves it in a new place where we can appreciate it with modern sensibilities and enjoy [it] theatrically," Thomas says.

At 23, the playwright is eerily discerning in his understanding of history and racial politics. He believes that too many people are caught up in what he calls the "safety net of history," which prevents understanding and addressing lingering racial difficulties.

"I want to remove the safety net that distances us from the civil rights movement," he says. "The safety net is in the notion that racism is history. We're able to look back and see how it was and say, ‘Wow, things were so different back then,' without actually examining how racism still affects us in the present. I think those images of the past have done us damage in some way."

The play's director, 22-year-old Daniel Student, an education assistant at Center Stage, is equally keen on matters regarding race. Student, who is white, describes the post-Brown generations as having been "handed down a complicated history." The challenge for young people today, he says, is to maintain the optimism of Brown and its promise of racial pioneering, while acknowledging that--as he attempts to illustrate in The Spectator through jarring scene changes--racial progress has occurred in "fits and starts."

"In terms of race relations, it's been false starts, opening numbers, and cutoffs," Student says, quoting a line from the play. "Brown was sort of a false start because its implementation took some 30 years--and for many it's still going on."

Born in the early 1980s and raised in Baltimore, Thomas says he has no personal experience with the segregation that restricted entire generations of African-Americans before Brown. He grew up in the historic West Baltimore neighborhood of Upton--not too far from where Thurgood Marshall once lived on Division Street--and though he's always lived in black neighborhoods, he has attended predominantly white schools, including the private Park School in Baltimore County, whose Web site notes that its student body is 20 percent African-American.

Still, Thomas says, his experience with prejudice and racism is real. Black friends from his neighborhood would tease him for his use of Standard English, he recalls. And whites kept telling him--and still do--how "articulate" he is, which he sees as a backhanded compliment, rooted in stereotypes of black ignorance and lack of education.

"That happens to me all the time," Thomas says. "Whenever I hear that sometimes--‘you're just so articulate'--it makes me tense."

Indeed, the son of a Baltimore City public-school teacher and Lexington Market manager, Thomas grew up in a home where education was highly valued. Combined with his understanding of history--his parents are history buffs--and his experience as a minority in a predominantly white learning environment, he says he wanted to come up with a way to retell the story of Brown that reflected his own understanding. Thomas and Student, also a Park alum, had collaborated on several theater pieces while in high school, and they started talking about commemorating Brown onstage. They first considered re-enacting the events surrounding Brown as a play in itself, later deciding that it would come off as corny.

"That was the worst idea I'd ever heard of," Thomas says. "I imagined a flashback to Thurgood Marshall telling it like it is. But I didn't feel like that meant anything."

Student agreed that the idea would come off as clichéd. Drawing upon his own experience of racial tensions while at school, he recalled the time when he sat with his African-American friends at the so-called "black table." He says he felt "fear" and "isolation."

So Student and Thomas decided to apply their own histories to develop a story to make the Brown story relevant to today's younger audiences. It took Thomas only six weeks to write a draft. While writing, he says, he summoned up inspiration from some of his favorite playwrights, who themselves comprise a multicultural crew--Bertolt Brecht, Arthur Miller, and August Wilson.

Thomas didn't have a hard time getting the show produced, either. His "in" was through Student, who had been working with Run of the Mill for a while, and when Thomas pitched the idea to the theater in September, the staff immediately inked it on their spring schedule, timed to coincide with the May 17 anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling.

In recasting the story of Brown, Thomas says he wants to evoke a "visceral response" from the audience, to remind contemporary theatergoers that anxieties and fears about race still exist. And he just might meet this goal in the play's final scene. There, the African-American onlooker known only as The Woman experiences an emotional breakdown, brought on by the realization that racism is cyclical, and possibly endless.

"That's the end, huh?" The Woman demands, addressing the audience, after the Meadowview cast wraps up its predictably disappointing play. "That what you wanted to see? Always turns out the same way. But you keep coming back. Why? To see a different ending?"

Above all, Thomas says, he hopes to encourage viewers to be honest about their feelings on race, no matter what the forum. Without honesty, he says, all the civil-rights legislation in the world won't make a difference.

"Of course, it'll be painful," he says. "But it'll be beneficial. It's a process that's not without hurt. And if we avoid hurt, we're not going to get anywhere."

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