Former New Orleans City Councilman Oliver Thomas hasn't been a stranger to the stage at Anthony Bean Community Theater. He played the lead in No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, which won a Big Easy Best Drama award in 2003.
In 2011, when Thomas starred in his own story, Reflections: A Man and His Time, a biographical piece cowritten and directed by Anthony Bean about Thomas' 2007 conviction and jail time for taking a bribe, it attracted some new faces to the theater.
"One night we had a row of criminal court judges in here," Bean says. The show also drew many local politicians and news reporters and was covered in The New York Times. The run was extended a couple of times, and was one of the theater's most successful shows.
Reflections is based on a journal Thomas kept while in jail. It addresses the bribe, corruption, the toll crime takes on young black men, redemption and more. But one of the biggest points of discussion for many people who saw the show was the identities of some of the characters.
"Everybody was trying to guess who each of the ministers was," Thomas says
"These are powerful men," Bean says during a rehearsal with the new cast. As the actors work on the tone of a scene in which several ministers convene at Thomas' house the night before he resigned his council seat, Bean wants the actors to understand that the ministers have invested much in Thomas — expecting that he'd eventually become New Orleans' mayor.
Audiences will get another chance to speculate about the ministers' identities and contemplate the political impact of Thomas' demise during a new version of Reflections, which opens Friday. This production updates Thomas' story and features a new Act 2 and a narrator who puts some of the story in perspective.
Reflections 2 also features more veteran politicians. Clearly identifiable as themselves are former City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis and former New Orleans School Board member Gail Glapion. It's the theatrical debut for Willard-Lewis, whose father was a fan of Dashiki Theater and he always encouraged her to get involved in stagework, she says. Thomas thought she would be a good cast member, but she had another qualification.
"Cynthia stood for the same things I stood for: people locked out of the system," Thomas says.
Glapion is a familiar face at the Bean theater. She performed in its first production, Steal Away, a sort of Robin Hood story in which women turned down for a bank loan scheme to acquire the funds by other means. She also recently played Big Momma in the theater's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Thomas' acting credits include playing a character similar to himself on the second and early third seasons of HBO's Treme. But Reflections 2 digs back into reality and expands on some issues.
"We talk about the intersection of power and public service," Thomas says. "Good people get caught up too. The beast is never satisfied. It will eat you up."
In one scene, Thomas talks to the ministers about the bribe and what seems like a small amount of money weighed against his chance to become mayor. He describes his conflicted feelings about leaving events and lavish fundraisers hosted by wealthy Uptown families and going home to modest dinners.
Since the first version of Reflections, Thomas and his wife Angelle divorced. In the original play, she confroned him about prioritizing his political life over his family. This version addresses their divorce. There's an unflinching quality to the work.
"I'm using my life as an example — good and bad," Thomas says. "Anthony asked me: Could I only lead when things were going well?"
Thomas notes that Bean said, "I can get somebody else to play you."
Bean says the end of Thomas' political career paved the way for Mayor Mitch Landrieu's election and a white majority on the New Orleans City Council.
"This talks about race and power," Thomas says. "Let's talk about who's in charge."
Bean and Thomas only recently started work on Reflections 2.
"We're old high school friends," Bean says. "We were having lunch at Li'l Dizzy's and everyone was coming up to Oliver and shaking his hand."
After noticing the appeal Thomas still has, Bean scrapped another play on the schedule and convinced Thomas to do Reflections 2. To Bean, there's plenty of lingering hope in Thomas' political prospects.
"I think if Oliver ran tomorrow (for mayor), he'd win," Bean says.