African-American Theatre program grants new ‘Wishes’

The cast of “The Secret Language of Wishes”: Photo by Michael Hottois    The cast of “The Secret Language of Wishes” includes (l-r) Thea Browning, Frances Lewis, Mary Holt and Elizabeth Cox.

The cast of “The Secret Language of Wishes”: Photo by Michael Hottois The cast of “The Secret Language of Wishes” includes (l-r) Thea Browning, Frances Lewis, Mary Holt and Elizabeth Cox.

Four years ago, playwright Cori Thomas was changing subway trains at the Times Square station in her hometown when the sight of two young women caught her attention. One was a physically disabled African-American woman who looked to be in her late teens. The other was a white woman, who seemed close in age, helping her through the labyrinth beneath the city’s streets.

At first Thomas thought the two were part of a group, but saw no other people with them. Then she thought the white woman was some kind of social service employee assigned to escort the woman. But, she says, there was no hint of behavior to indicate that the two were anything but good friends.

“I later got angry at myself for assuming that — that my initial thought was these two women were only together through a job situation,” she says. “It just seemed narrow-minded.”

While she never learned the women’s identities or the nature of their relationship, they held Thomas’ attention for the next two years. During that time, Thomas imagined the personal stories that placed them on the subway platform that day. She imagined the severely disabled woman as Rose, a person whose mind was stronger than her body. She imagined the other as Dakota, a spirited and loyal friend who fended for herself since she was a child. Then, over three weeks in 2004, she composed their stories as she imagined them into the first draft of her play “The Secret Language of Wishes.”

The play opens Wednesday at the Thrust Theater with its first fully staged production, presented by U of L’s African-American Theatre program. Thomas will participate in a discussion about the play after Thursday evening’s performance.

Thomas, a 43-year-old professional actress and a member of New York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre, says she didn’t know any people like her characters, whom she describes as inventions of her imagination that guided the story. But she did have experience in a custody dispute with her ex-husband when she divorced after 10 years of marriage. That, she says, helped inform part of the play’s narrative.

After her divorce, she became a single mother and left acting roles behind, taking other jobs that paid the bills. For seven years, she was a personal shopper for special clients at FAO Schwartz. Later she was the personal assistant to a Middle Eastern princess. Today, she is an assistant to Jane Rosenthal, who is Robert De Niro’s partner in the Tribeca Film Festival.

Meanwhile, she has found playwriting as a way to sustain her ties to theater. Over the past 10 years, she has written six plays, three of which have been produced. Last summer, she received a call from Lundeana Thomas (no relation), director of U of L’s African-American Theatre program, requesting permission to stage the play.
“I was very struck by the fact that she seemed to honestly love my play,” Thomas says.

Then, last November, the playwright came to Louisville for the first time. Over her two-day visit, Thomas met Lundeana, who is directing the play, and the rest of the cast. She also oversaw a reading of the play by student actors. The playwright says this is the first time she has not been part of the development of one of her works. At Wednesday’s premiere, along with the audience, she will watch her play on stage for the first time.

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