R Eric. Thomas Swears His New Show “Backing Track” Is Not Autofiction, It’s Fan Fiction

Bi Jean Ngo, Melanye Finister, Joseph Ahmed, and Danielle Leneé in BACKING TRACK at Arden Theatre Company.

The Rebecca Wright directed production of R. Eric Thomas’ Backing Track at the Arden Theatre made the case that finding queer love in a banal suburb is possible, a radical opinion for some, and that processing grief can also be a joyous practice.

The show is episodic and paced by a mixtape of songs and quotes that lay out the process of how a family has come to terms with the loss of their co-matriarch, Mel. The show carried the energy of a live sitcom recording and I was happy to be part of the laugh track.

Thomas’ swears that this play isn’t autofiction but that the show’s gay romance is fan fiction. It’s easy to see what he means when you watched Avery (Brenson Thomas) and Abraham (Carl Hsu) find love in spite of their scrolling through the abyss of headless torsos. When they first meet on Grindr, Abraham is shrouded in darkness, his face unabashedly hidden despite their texts conveying an emotional intimacy that some would assume requires at least two talking heads. Watching Abraham go from carefully curated angles of his biceps to typical suburban gay man that shops at Target, was refreshing. You wouldn’t believe that this could happen especially, with Avery guarding his heart, which is very much on his sleeve, but their romance is insistent and endearing.

Even if the play was fan fiction, we got into the very real politics of the queer Philly scene. I was shocked to learn that Woody’s had a computer station for you to dutifully check your Adam for Adam profiles. I didn’t realize how much of a technological slow burn it was to reach our current state of queer dating apps, an oversaturated market that seems to take us farther and farther from human connection. Can’t wait until I can go to Woody’s on the Metaverse.

You can catch Backing Track at the Arden Theatre through April 10th or can stream it online from April 11th-24th. Buy tickets here.

Alexi Chacon: You’re writing, and this particular play Backing Track deals a lot with memory. In this show, you flesh out the process of grief and memorializing someone after death. Your biography on Representative Maxine Waters’ life, cements legacy while the person is living instead of memorializing someone after the fact. Did you have a different approach to writing about memory for each of these works?

Eric Thomas: That’s a really interesting question. One of the things that animates Backing Track is that Miriam, the character who has passed away before the play begins, is such a huge presence in these people’s lives. The grief that they are dealing with is separate from her, which is one of the stumbling blocks that they come around to realizing. When working on the book about Representative Waters, I had the opposite challenge. People started calling her Auntie Maxine, based on something that I wrote and the challenge that Halina and I had in the book was trying to not lean into stereotype and instead uplift everything that she had done while making it present for the reader in in the moment. We wanted to give her, her flowers while she’s alive.

AC: This show also focuses a lot on property ownership. It’s one of the first plays I’ve seen where two people of color own property, and are not, like in Raisin in the Sun, working towards property ownership to achieve that “American Dream.” Was that an intentional kind of departure from how people of color are portrayed in relationship to property ownership?

REC: I’m very much always trying to touch the hem of the garment of Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, and August Wilson. I grew up, reading and going to see those plays and understanding myself as a Black person in that world. As I became an adult, and I started to go to the theater, then I was seeing plays like Clybourne Park, and I wanted to have a conversation because there was something missing. It’s partially about the way that we structured how we understand contemporary theatre to work and how we think those characters are supposed to exist in the theatrical world, particularly characters of color. I wanted to upend that apple cart. If Esther as a character, who is your neighborhood association president is a white woman, comes in and demands that the yard appear cleaner, it’s a very different context. But it’s one that we expect. We expect white characters on stage to represent a sort of maintaining of order or to have the upper hand. That tone changes by making Esther a person of color in the show.

AC: The show has an Airbnb owner, Abraham played by Carl Hsu, who encroaches on the neighborhood by snapping up homes left and right. Does making Abraham a person of color justify his neoliberal girl-bossin’ success at the expense of our own community? Do you think that conversation starts to be supported by the play itself?

REC: As a playwright, I’m not necessarily interested in judgment, but I am interested in the conversation that you have when you get dessert after the play. The American Dream is about hanging your shingle. Well, that’s not the big bad, but the idea that we have to take things, take property, take pieces of land, and turn them into money in order to prove our worth in this country is explored in the play. I think the play opens up both possibilities, where Abraham can be grappling with the implications of him pursuing the American dream while also being humanized as the romantic lead. He’s Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail” and he’s also Tom Hanks.

AC: I loved Avery and Abraham’s relationship. It was refreshing to see queer romance that was not based on intense yearning. It was just two people living life in the suburbs who fell in love. But of course, they are gay and so they met on Grindr. Understandably, Avery kept internally wondering whether romance was dead in our queer hyper-sexualized culture. What would you tell him? Is there is there hope for romance in hyper sexualization, as we experience it, within queer culture?

REC: The way that Grindr works in this play is so ridiculously romantic. Avery and Abraham show that it is absolutely possible to have a delightful tête-à-tête with somebody on the apps. But I’m a huge fan of being in the room and staying in the room with people, I am going to make myself sound like the old queen sitting at a piano bar in Province Town, but when I first started going out, I would go to Woody’s, which back then was a gay bar, and just talk to people. Then they started having computers at Woody’s that you could go to, to check your online profiles. Some people would stand at those computers all night checking their profiles instead of talking to people. When the apps came out, they got rid of the computers because everybody had the computer in their hands.

It’s deeply scary to strike up a conversation with somebody, it’s very scary to say this is this is who I am on the inside. But instead we’ve traded it for this is who I am on the outside. It is so strange to send yourself out piecemeal over the internet. Here’s a here’s a chest, here’s other things. And here’s my face if you need that. I get it. I’m a person. But one of the things that is really exciting to me about this play is that it highlights inherent and insistent romance. The conversations that Avery and Abraham have are conversations that I think so many of us are yearning for. I knew that some of my friends in Philly would see the show and they would see the romance that we dreamed about, that we talked about, that we wished for. Avery and Abraham work because they are two people being 100% themselves. They think they have nothing to lose because they think this app is just body parts. And then they fall into it, in love.

AC: I had no idea that Woody’s had computers to check your profiles. What if you spilled your drink on the computer?

REC: Our computer literacy was so underdeveloped that we might have not realized that water breaks computers. The smaller bar looked like a FedEx Kinkos and people would send messages on Adam for Adam. You’re at Woody’s right now, just turn around and meet someone?

AC: I’m picturing a desktop computer on the piano at Tavern on Camac.

REC: The first produced play I had in Philly was called Time Is On Our Side and is essentially about Tavern on Camac and ultimately how we find each other as queer people.

AC: I’m definitely going to read that; Tavern is one of my favorite places.

Miriam has such a huge presence on the show even when she has no speaking lines, and no physical presence on stage. I wanted to delve deeper into Miriam as a character. It’s clear that Avery gets his humor and wit from his mother Mel. What parts of Avery come from Miriam?

REC: Oh, that’s a great question and I thought about that a lot. Even though Avery is cantankerous in the way that Mel is he’s also a community maker in the way that Miriam was. Miriam was a member of the neighborhood association and helped create that community. He creates these cabaret-karaoke communities on his cruise ship gig that people keep booking because he is a showman and pulls people toward him. Oh, I love Avery. He’s just so great.

AC: A lot of this play spoke to the Black queer experience and the Black familial experience. Was any of it autofiction?

REC: You would get a very different answer if you asked my parents this. They would say oh, yeah definitely. None of it is autofiction and some of it is fan fiction. It’s about the way I wish my dating life had gone. I’ve made people mixtapes but never got them. I would have killed to have a conversation as delightful as Avery and Abraham’s. Avery is not me. Avery is a character that I play on the internet sometimes. But Avery is so much bigger than I am. And I don’t write about problems that I have, that I haven’t already worked through. That’s how you get messy plays. If there’s any sort of similarity it’s the portrayal of a family that has really sharp idiosyncratic relationships with each other.

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