Green: Here for It, #321

Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the internet?

Today is my birthday! As a special treat, tomorrow I will be blocking out the sun for a few minutes over much of North America! Also, I have something to give you for my birthday! I have a new advice column starting! I'll tell you all about it later in the newsletter (look for the little lightbulb emoji.)

One of the best ways to celebrate turning a year older is to return to your old middle and high school and walk through the halls like a ghost who didn't learn how to use PowerPoint, so that's what I did a few weeks ago. I was invited by my school to give a keynote speech to the middle school to start a special day they'd planned dedicated to affinity groups, allyship, diversity and inclusion.

I talk to middle and high schools a lot nowadays and I really enjoy it. But it's always very intimidating to me. With high schoolers, I'm quite aware of not wanting to come off as someone trying too hard to be cool because that way lies madness. But, in general, I have no problem facing an auditorium full of teens swaddled in sweatshirts with the hoods up, slouching in their chairs at 30 degree angles. I've hosted drag shows in dive bars at 1 am, baby; you have to give me more indifference than that to ruffle these boa feathers.

But middle school is an entirely different beast. 6th, 7th, and 8th grade represents such a wide range of development stages. They're kind of children but also on the precipice of young adulthood; they are hyper and lethargic and weird. They have big thoughts and low impulse control. I always feel like they have the ability to see through me, which is terrifying.

Talking to middle schoolers feels like being the human guest star on an episode of The Muppet Show. I start my talk like "Hi, I'm Candice Bergen and, wow, yeah that's a rubber chicken being fired from a cannon."

Me speaking coherently at 8:30 am.

Prior to my talk, as Gonzo and Janice and Dr. Teeth were getting settled, I stood in the alcove just off of stage right and I time-traveled. The alcove was the place I stood 27 years ago during every performance of Little Shop of Horrors, in which I played the voice of the plant, Audrey II. I had a mic stand set up and a music stand with the script because being off-book has not historically been one of R. Eric Thomas's core competencies. And, back in the present, as the fantastic Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion was introducing me, I was in the alcove 16-years-old again, applying to colleges and singing a duet with someone who is now a New York Times bestseller.

Anyway, ob-la-di-ob-la-da, y'know?

(There's no video of my performance but just assume this video is me. Warning: loud and incredible.)

I like to start my talks with a little bit of futzy business as a way of setting a room tone. As I adjust the mic and learn how to use PowerPoint, I talk off the cuff about whatever comes to mind as a way of saying "Hi, I am a human person of the casual variety. I am not a federal judge or a cardiothorasic surgeon; what I do matters because what everyone does matters but I invite you to feel comfortable in this room." So during the business at my middle school, I talked about time traveling back to Little Shop of Horrors and how I could still remember every word of that play. And then, my mic adjusted, I talked for 35 minutes about identity and personhood and why it was important that the characters in my book are Black and Indian and Dominican and white and Baltimorean and queer and working class and middle class and more. And I connected it to why their identities were important. And I ended by talking about museums, which are a part of the book and were the impetus for the writing. And I asked them to consider that a museum was a story we are telling about ourselves and to wonder about what the museums of their lives look like.

And at the end, mustering all of my Candice Bergen on The Muppet Show energy, I opened up for questions. Immediately, hands shot up. This is an incredible sign. I called on one kid.

"What's your favorite line from Little Shop of Horrors?" she asked.

I laughed out loud at this because, yes, of course this was the first question. I answered it with an unpracticed but still serviceable Audrey II impression and then called on the next kid.

"Why didn't Seymour feed animals to the plant instead of humans?"

I answered as best I could by talking about how Seymour was trapped in something called a morality play and how the narrative that society told him about himself created impossible choices. I called on the next person.

"Why didn't Seymour go to the blood bank?"

Honestly, that is a great question and I don't know. But I think it has something to do with a lack of economic opportunity. I called on another eager hand.

"What is Little Shop of Horrors about anyway?!"

Me and the other Black kids in my class entering the cafeteria circa 1997

I have, honestly, never been more delighted by a speaking experience. After we discussed the finer points of the musical and the corrosive effects of capitalism on all of us, I started to get more questions about my talk, about identity, and about holding on to one's identity in a space where one doesn't feel fully seen. It was everything I could have hoped for and more. This school continues to give me so much.

Please do invite me to talk to your middle and high schoolers about diversity and narrative and identity. I will bring a rubber chicken for the cannon and I will be off-book for the fall musical.

I'm writing a new advice column! People are always doing things and having situations and I have thoughts about it! I can't tell you where just yet, but as we get ourselves set up, I'd love for you to send me questions about your or other people's problems. No problem too small, petty, or Little Shop-related. E-mail

New play coming so soon!

Here are some words that relate to my new play An Army of Lovers!

Audre Lorde

The television show Succession

The movie Desk Set

Trees, comma, general

Accidentally being unmuted on a conference call

Getting Instagram ads for things you talked to your cousin about

A newsletter made on a typewriter

I'm so proud of this play; I hope you'll come see it (for free!) in Philly.

[Also, for your planning purposes, the website says it is 90 minutes but that's incorrect; it's actually 2 hours with an intermission.]

Let's hang out!

On April 13th I'll be at the San Antonio Book Festival!

On May 11th I'll be at Books in Bloom in Columbia, MD! More info here!

Anyway, ob-la-di-ob-la-da, y'know?,