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There’s always hope, even in a prison cell. That’s the crux of the three-time NAACP Theatre Awards winner 12’x9’, a drama written by South Philadelphia’s Fred Thomas Jr. The play makes its East Coast debut June 13 through 15 at the New Freedom Theatre.
The story revolves around three calculating inmates in an overcrowded federal prison, played by writer-director Thomas, Maurice G. Smith (of Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns TV series), and Damien D. Smith. After a jailhouse fire, they’re forced to share living quarters, despite their disconnected institutionalized coping mechanisms: faith, fight, and fear.
Prison: a self-fulfilling prophecy?
The idea for the story came from Thomas’s youth in South Philly, where he was surrounded by crime and violence. Some of the guys he knew sold drugs; many thought that prison or death was the only available result.
“They mentally structured themselves to be prepared to go to prison if they had to,” Thomas said. “The older I got, from eight or nine to my teens, going to prison seemed like a rite of passage, especially for African-American males in urban areas.”
One of the play’s main themes is that thinking you’ll end up in prison may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“It was psychological, something we were conditioning ourselves to do and be proud of,” he said. “It’s a prison of the mind. You imprison yourself.”
When writing, Thomas relied on stories of people he knew, documentaries, books, and other materials about the business/moneymaking aspects of prisons. He had no firsthand knowledge of the system because he was held accountable and nurtured by a village, he said.
“Mom, Dad, aunts, uncles, grandmothers — everybody lived in my area, so everywhere I went was a face or cousin checking on me. That kept me on the straight and narrow. That, and respect for my family.”
Writing from a young age
His interest in the arts kept him out of trouble, too. He started writing stories when he was eight or nine. As he got older, he also wrote comedic pieces, inspired by Mad Magazine and Saturday Night Live. He performed skits with classmates at recess and then after school, “I would go home and write. That was my outlet, my way to express what I felt as a young black male,” he said. “So I lived between these two worlds.”
Writing and school gave him a way out of the life that many of his friends thought was their destiny. He hopes that his play will inspire young people to realize that opportunities are available, that one wrong choice can change your life forever, and there’s always an alternative. “Go to the library, to school, to boys and girls clubs,” he said.
“Read, play sports, look at pictures of other countries and say, ‘There’s another world outside my world. I want to travel.’ Then start doing things to put yourself in situations to get where you want to go.”
From 'Whassup' to the stage
Thomas did, and the playwright likes where he ended up. He graduated from Lincoln University, earned his Masters in Film and Media Arts from Temple, and founded Temple’s Black Media Collective.
He appreciates humor, too: He co-starred in the Budweiser "Whassup" ad campaign with his friends. He hopes that, as in life, bits of humor in the play lighten the drama. "There's humor in pain," he said.
He's looking forward to feeling the reaction from the audience when he's on stage and after. “You’ve never seen a prison play like this – the dichotomy of the different characters, the themes that are discussed,” he said.
And there is a message he hopes will resonate. “If you surround yourself with negative things, you’re going to think negative,” he said. “You definitely got to think positive to live a positive life.”
12’x9’, intended for mature audiences only, takes the stage June 13 through June 15 at the John E. Allen Jr. Theatre at The New Freedom Theatre, 1346 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia. Get tickets ($30) in advance online or by calling 215-978-8497. For more information, visit www.12x9thestageplay.com.
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