Don't believe his book title: For humorist R. Eric Thomas, the best is yet to come
Humorist and Baltimore native R. Eric Thomas describes his relationship with his hometown as a "fraught" one.
"It's not the city's fault, but Baltimore is a city that has gotten a pervasively bad rap," he says. "I knew that as somebody who lived on a block where they would film the television show Homicide and the television show The Wire."
Thomas left the city an adult, moving to Philadelphia where he wrote the bestselling book Here For It, hosted The Moth story slam and was embedded in the theater scene. But then his husband got a job as a pastor in Baltimore and it was time to move back to his hometown. In the process, Thomas came to understand just how much he — and Baltimore — had changed.
"I realized that I was not giving the city a fair shake," Thomas says. "And I realized, 'OK, if I'm not letting Baltimore be new, then why should I get to be new in this city?'"
Thomas describes Baltimore as a city of "art and music and food." "It's a very Black city," he says. "It is also a very diverse city. It's a city where there's a lot of queer opportunity and queer community."
Thomas' new book, Congratulations, the Best Is Over!, is about middle age, and what it feels like to go back to the place where you were born — especially when your relationship with that place is complicated. Despite the book's title, Thomas says he feels like his best years are in front of him.
"Every decade of my life has been better than the one beforehand, and I want to believe that this decade also, and the decades further, will be also really wonderful," he says.
On growing up in an Evangelical church and looking for a place where he felt more comfortable
The church that I grew up in, not only was there very negative messaging around LGBTQ people, but there was also this narrative that I intuited that was about suffering and that we deserved to suffer. And I looked around at these people that I loved so much. It was an all Black church, and most of the people were lower-middle class or lower class. And I said to myself, "I think some of the suffering is not actually rooted in sin or in our inherent badness. I think some of this is actually systemic." I didn't have that word [systemic] back when I was 13 ... but I struggled with this idea that we were in the wrong story, too. And so I searched for faith Community for a long time.
One time I went to visit a church with my good friend Jake, who also grew up in evangelical spaces and was searching for a church home that would accept him. And we found this church that was open and affirming, and we went and everybody was wearing a rainbow pin. And they were so excited to see us. And we had accidentally dressed exactly alike. And so we look like boyfriends or missionaries or maybe missionary boyfriends. And we weren't, we were just friends. And we were like, "Oh, you know, it's great that you have a lot of gay people here. This is wonderful." And they're like, "Well, we don't, but we really want to." And that was lovely, but we wanted to be in a space where we actually were both welcomed, wanted, but also we already were. And that's what I found when I found David's church.
On meeting his husband David, a pastor
The conflict, of course, about finding a church that was open and affirming and had a queer pastor and many other queer people is that, then I had to decide: Do I want to be a congregant or do I want to be a boyfriend? Because you can't be both. Then I was like, "Oh what a rom-com dilemma I'm in!"
David would not date a congregant, which is, I think, morally right and spiritually healthy. And so if I was going to him for spiritual guidance, for mentorship, for community, then I couldn't be pursuing a romantic relationship with him. He has very clear ethical boundaries. ... He showed up at [my] one-person show. I was doing a storytelling show. It was called Always the Bridesmaid, and the tagline was a search for "God, boys and baked goods," and it's just about how I wanted to find a religious community and I wanted to find love. And sitting right there in the audience, I found both.
On finding church everywhere
I have had different experiences where I've done book events and people from the old church and people from my parents' new church, which is more progressive, and people from David's church, which is very progressive, have all sort of been in the audience. And I look out and I think to myself like, "Oh, is this church, too?" I am of the belief that sometimes the church is the building. Sometimes it is the walls and the door and the stained glass and the choir loft and the smell of perfume and old hymnals — and that's great. That's a wonderful sensory experience. But sometimes church is literally wherever the people are. And so church for me sometimes is a Beyoncé concert or a gay bar on a great night or a car ride with one or two other people where we're really connecting with each other. ...
I kept looking for the building that I was supposed to walk into where they would say, "You are home." And I don't know that that building exists. Maybe that's heaven. Maybe I'll get there and see it and I'll be like, "Oh, that's. I've been looking for this." But in the meantime, there are these churches all over this earth, and I'm grateful for that because there was never a moment where everything knit itself together.
On the church-like experience of a concert or theater
I saw Beyoncé in D.C. a little while ago and immediately my phone died in the middle of a concert. It was raptured to heaven, along with me. I've never felt so deeply connected to myself, to the other people in the space who were soaking wet. Every time I've seen Beyoncé recently, it's been soaking wet. And I'm like, this a baptism! It's not connected to Christianity per se. It is connected to a deeper sense of your soul in something bigger. And it was like, I get why people are roadies. I get why people go see Broadway shows like Hadestown or Kimberly Akimbo 30, 40 times.
I get why I go back to the page and to write plays, to write television, to write books. But specifically plays. ... I am trying to get to this palace of big feelings, this place where I can not be neutral, where I can be in a room full of people who are feeling something very specific but also the same thing. That is something that I hungered for all throughout the pandemic. I think a lot of people did. And we realized, and I think we always knew, having to separate robs us of a core part of who we are and how we understand the goodness of life. To be in a space where everyone is feeling a joy or a pain or excitement or whatever it is, whether it's a funeral or a concert or church or theater or whatnot, it is to be reminded that you are human and that you are not alone. And that is so crucial a reminder for me.
On how his book, Kings of B'More, changed his relationship to his hometown
[It's] a book about the city in all of its beauty and its diversity and its possibility and it wasn't hard to write. It was the quickest writing process of all my books, and the most fulfilling. And I said to myself, Oh my, this place that I felt such pain in, I get to craft this story that is nothing but joy for me and hopefully for others. So I worried when I was writing Congratulations, the Best is Over! the people who live and love Baltimore would see the same old story getting played out, that they would say, "Oh, yet another person trashing Baltimore." But the response so far has been people saying, "I understand that it's a journey sometimes, but I got to the end of the journey."
Therese Madden and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.
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