by Orissa Arend
I went with friends to see a local resurrection story at the Anthony Bean Theater. “Reflections 2” is the story of Oliver Thomas, political golden boy who fell from grace shortly after Hurricane Katrina to spend 27 months in federal prison for taking a $15,000 bribe. Its first rendition (2011) titled “Reflections: A Man and his Time” was a self-portrait detailing his ordeal. The play has morphed – rewritten by Thomas and Bean – from a confessional, focusing on “how could you?!” and “just tell us why you did it!” Now it’s an everyman/woman drama and heartwarming story about the importance of family, the balancing of the public and private, the deadly dehumanization of young Black men, and a call to realistic action. With the passage of time, there is a sense that it really doesn’t matter why he did what he did, especially since he’s paid his dues without making excuses. We all do stupid things and often for stupid reasons.
It’s an only-in-New Orleans production. Where else could three former elected officials willingly and engagingly play themselves – Gail Glapion, Cynthia Willard-Lewis, and Oliver Thomas? How many of us could play the role of ourselves in our divorce, as Oliver does, looking like a jerk, with the whole audience cheering for our spouse? A reflection, I would say, that borders on transcendent wisdom, not to mention humility.
Alvin Green as Donte and Rashif Holmes as Babyface restore humanity to the lost boys in the prison system. Oliver seeks out their personal histories and listens as they rap about “this is why we die so young.” He can’t, then, simply leave them when he leaves prison.
Out of prison, Oliver is still doing the work of public service, especially for the most vulnerable. “I am still working with kids, mentoring and trying to give them hope and doing things to make a difference.” He is a motivational speaker, poet, public policy consultant, youth mentor, writer, actor, and host of The Good Morning Show on WBOK. He has appeared in the HBO series Tremé.
I’ve seen an example first hand of his community spirit. As soon as he got out of prison a small volunteer nonprofit, Community Mediation Services, realized he could be of great value to us. He readily agreed to serve on our board and gave generously of his time and expertise to mediate a neighbor to neighbor dispute. The quarrel was between two women involving children, boyfriends, neighbors and caseworkers. It was exactly the kind of situation that, absent careful listening and respectful attention, often leads to murder in New Orleans.
The play highlights some of New Orleans’ larger-than-life characters. I could see people we know in the women on the courthouse steps. And I’ll bet that if I were savvier about Black church life I would recognize each of the preachers, one dripping with bling, as they gathered at the Thomas house to preen and posture and map their political strategy.
Calling out the problems within the Black community, in the opening monologue, Oliver says, “Just because the system is unfair, doesn’t mean we have to be unfair with each other.” The gathered ministers discuss the “secret plot in this city to turn back the clock” to white and the fact that white men have done far worse. “But two wrongs don’t make a right,” one preacher counters as he embraces the clarity of “thou shalt not steal.” And yet, notes Oliver, reflecting on the meaning of the play, “It’s hard for there to be justice if the people who mete out justice are unjust.”
This kind of honesty about the racial divide and the insidious ways racism gets perpetuated are topics perhaps more effectively dealt with artistically than politically. This kind of honesty is not sagacious when you hold elected office. Let’s assume for a moment that prison deepened Oliver’s insights and that the stripping of his political power humbled him and freed him, in a way, to be more himself – a self that many New Orleanians love because they can see themselves in him.
The real resurrection, it seems to me, is the liberation of a true prophetic voice. Oliver can reflect not just on his own mistakes, but on the failures of an entire city, a broken penal system, and a misguided education system that neglects children in favor of profits.
Take this play to prison. Put it before vast white audiences. Discuss it in schools and on the streets. Perhaps, then, the truth, will indeed set us free to get on with solving the very real problems of our beloved city.
Orissa Arend is a mediator and author if Showdown in Desire, the Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans.