The first time writer R. Eric Thomas took his husband on a driving tour of North Avenue in his native Baltimore, to which the two had just moved, it occurred to him that maybe the charms of Charm City were being lost in translation.
“I was like, ‘That’s the funeral home where we buried my grandmother, and that’s the funeral home where we buried my aunt, and that’s where I got mugged,’” Thomas recalled recently over coffee. It’s hard to explain you’re drawn to the place when Memory Lane is paved with muggers.
But for the last six years, Thomas, former ELLE magazine columnist and bestselling author, and his husband, the Rev. David Norse, stayed in Baltimore, becoming reacquainted with the highs and lows of having this complicated city on your heart. That decision proved not only emotionally but artistically advantageous, inspiring five plays, three of which were produced this year, including “Crying On Television,” currently playing at Everyman Theatre.
Thomas, like many of us who grew up here, has seen the city cycle through so many periods where a pivotal change was supposedly just around the corner. Really! It’s gonna happen … until it doesn’t. But still, some stick around, and others, like Thomas and me, come back to reacquaint with the old hometown — to see if maybe we can help get it to that place it’s supposed to be.
“I think I had to see myself in the city, and a future in the city,” explained the writer, whose work includes the hilarious and bittersweet memoir “Here For It” and the upcoming YA novel “Kings of B’more.” He’s also filling in for the writer of Slate.com’s popular “Dear Prudence” advice column.
Perhaps his future in Baltimore wasn’t always certain, but his past is well-cemented. Thomas, 41, was raised in Upton and born at the time of another fabled and, for a while, realized period of potential and possibility in the city with the development of the Inner Harbor. His father, Robert, was the executive director of Lexington Market; his mother, Judith, a public school teacher.
When he graduated from the Park School in 1999 and headed to New York’s Columbia University, a return to his hometown wasn’t in his plans. He settled in Philadelphia, where he wrote and hosted the popular storytelling series The Moth. When Norse matched with a church in the Baltimore area — Towson’s Maryland Presbyterian Church — the two were surprised to even consider it. But as much as Thomas had been sure he wouldn’t be going home, he told Norse it was time, even though his friends elsewhere had trouble wrapping their heads around the move.
“They were like, ‘Well, your parents live there. That makes sense,’” as if there couldn’t be any other reason, he said, laughing. If they were surprised by his relocation, so was he.
“Moving feels like a breakup,” Thomas said, and he is right. Setting up house in a new city is already complicated, both the physical transition and the emotional changes that come from adjusting to a new place. It can be particularly tricky when you’ve moved back to the place that made you, something you never imagined you’d do.
Because of that breakup and all.
“They say that it takes half of the time you were in a relationship to get over it, and I feel like Baltimore was an ex of mine,” Thomas said, smiling. “But we didn’t have bad blood.”
So even though the idea of it shocked him and so many others, he reunited with his first love — civically-speaking — and found that it “feels so good,” as Peaches & Herb sang. Returning home as an adult can be difficult because you and the city have changed, and as you try to find your rhythm, it can be tough, especially in a world increasingly built for solitude even before COVID-19 sent us all inside.
“Crying On Television” finds its roots in Thomas’ first grasp at a new local connection, in the apartment building that he and Norse settled — “luxury living in warehouses.” In the play, Mackenzie (Starr Kirkland), a quirky, pop culture-obsessed young woman, has moved back to Baltimore and is housesitting for friend, Chris (Dwayne Washington), in the glamorous place he’s subletting. She awkwardly reaches for friendship with random strangers she meets in the elevator.
It’s a painfully funny scenario, and it taps into how trendy living spaces are presented as a way to use old structures to bring new people into the city, Thomas says. This seems like a good thing in theory, but didn’t always realistically feel that way. Not only did it not help foster relationships with other tenants, but it also didn’t cement the establishment of roots in Baltimore.
“It was a low-key disorienting experience,” Thomas explains. “It seemed transactional. It’s about development, but investment seems very different than that.”
It was the opposite of what he was looking for when he moved home, that connection that his “Crying On Television” characters crave. “I wanted community. I wanted that Smalltimore.” And so does Mackenzie, who echoes Thomas’ frustration. There’s a scene where she’s standing in the gorgeous apartment she assumed would cement her reacquaintance with her hometown, but hasn’t. “Why did I move back?” she blurts out.
Of course she, and Thomas, moved back home because they desired community, which is there if you can find it, no matter what. In the play, it’s through pop culture, a topic that joyously and touchingly pervades Thomas’ work. The first scene finds Mackenzie and apartment resident Ellison (Paige Hernandez) bonding over their favorite moments of TV sobbing — from Sarah McLachlan’s tear-inducing ASPCA ads to Florida Evans’ grief-inflected “Damn, damn, damn!” tirade on “Good Times” — the titular “Crying On Television.”
“I was talking to my mom, and she said, ‘Everything you write has all these references, some I don’t get,’ and it’s funny because I couldn’t watch TV as a kid,” he explains. Instead, Thomas devoured magazines like Entertainment Weekly. “Pop culture was a ladder out of feeling isolated. I love that being online has provided us a way of connecting, like ‘Is there anyone else watching this?’ I haven’t worked in an office in six years, and I missed that watercooler moment.”
That investment in the community confounds that big change in Baltimore that we always hear is just around the corner, and Thomas thinks we need to focus on the structural problems that stop us from realizing that potential, like “racial politics that undercut that potential. There are definitely problems, civic problems, but we’re talking only about crime as an issue, when these are systemic issues. ... [Not acknowledging that] does disservice to the humanity of the people here. The system has to change.”
And it’s a change he hopes to see, even with more changes. His husband got a pastoral opportunity back in Philadelphia, and now Thomas is splitting his time between there and here. They made a home here, and now the city has charmed its way back into his heart. He wants to be here. And even though “I don’t know where any of my stuff is,” he’s dedicated to this messy, wonderful place.