Backing Track, which premieres at the Arden on March 3, is filled with music, but it’s not a musical. The lead characters, who are family and neighbors, take karaoke very seriously; they connect through singing and the songs they love. Playwright R. Eric Thomas says nostalgia motivated him as he wrote this “karaoke play.”
“There’s songs that they play and you’re suddenly back to whoever you were when you first heard them,” said Thomas, who has another two plays premiering in Baltimore this season.
Backing Track is a rom-com à la Nora Ephron, who Thomas deeply admires. In the play, which features an all-POC cast and a queer love story, the complication facing the lovebirds is neighborhood change. Backing Track is set in a neighborhood modeled after Mount Airy and Germantown, but Thomas called the location “semi-fictional,” as it could be in another city, too. The playwright, who previously lived in South Philly before returning to his hometown of Baltimore, explained that he was “deeply inspired” by the Northwest Philly neighborhoods Black and LGBTQ histories.
Thomas, also a best-selling author, selected songs for the play that touch on nostalgia. Like Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” and Donny Hathaway’s “A Song For You.” Speaking of the Hathaway classic, Thomas said, it “begins with the gentle tinkling of a piano descending, it’s almost like you were walking down the stairs into the basement of your memory.”
He noted: “I really wanted to spend a lot of time in a sphere with an audience just remembering how vivid memory can be, particularly when there’s a soundtrack to it.”
Thomas spoke to The Inquirer about Backing Track, its themes, and what romantic comedies can show us. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Why did you choose to show a romance that has that tension from gentrification?
I lived in Philadelphia for 15 years. I lived in South Philly for most of that time, or all that time, actually. And I saw neighborhoods change.
I saw the way that there’s this constant conversation going on about who was Philly, how was Philly changing, and what are we going to do about it? I’m very curious as an artist about the ways that we feel at home and the ways that we feel that we are welcome. And so this play is ultimately about the problem of people trying to make a home in a neighborhood and trying to figure out: Is my way of feeling at home here disrupting somebody else’s feeling of being at home here?
It reminded me of You’ve Got Mail. The central tension in You’ve Got Mail is that Tom Hanks owns a sort of a book chain, like a Barnes & Noble type of store, and Meg Ryan runs a small bookstore that is being threatened by him. Now, you know, Tom Hanks is the villain in that movie. All of that is moot now in the shadow of Amazon. But like, I do wish that Meg Ryan had been able to keep her bookstore. But I think one of the promises of romantic comedy is that the things that separate us are not insurmountable, but we have to listen to each other and see each other in our fullness. I really wanted to create an opportunity where that could happen and I wanted to see an opportunity where that could actually happen amongst people of color.
Why “Backing Track” for the times we’re in now?
That is something that me and Rebecca Wright, the director, and Alexandra Espinoza, the associate director, talked about a lot. This is not a play that takes place during COVID and during quarantine. But it is very much a play about how transformational it is to be able to engage with other people face to face.
I would just go back to the idea of this play as a safe space for these characters. Like, they don’t know that it’s a safe space. They feel like outsiders sometimes; they feel like the neighborhood is threatened. We are able to sit in the audience and see the big picture, which is that these people have each other, that they are physically safe, that they’re able to be their full selves. There’s Asian characters, and there’s queer characters, and there’s people of color, Black characters, and they’re not being oppressed by legislation.
I think to watch that play now … it is not a fantasy. This is a world that’s possible. But I think the idea of a play is that it takes work. And my hope is that when we watch it now, we see that the work that we’re doing to make our neighborhoods and make ourselves better isn’t in vain.
There are a number of things, the romance being one, that feels like it kind of takes down the temperature of some of the possible tensions within the cast. With Germantown, it’s common to hear people worry about big developers who might have prices that are impossible for people from Germantown. And the developers might not be of color, like all of the characters in the play. Why did you select the people and the levels of tension that are present in “Backing Track”?
I’ve rented a lot of places. I’m actually looking for a home to rent in Philly right now, with my husband. I have felt like an outsider in the quest to try to have a home, and to be a part of a neighborhood. And I think that what can be lost in the conflict between longtime residents or renters who are putting down roots and between that group and developers who may not even live in the city, is the idea that these are people who wake up in that neighborhood every day, and pick up trash, or do the free tree program, or work to put a bike lane in, and those are the things that really affect our daily lives.
It isn’t to say that there isn’t a hopeful, happy play to be made out of a conversation between residents and an out-of-state developer, but I understood the promise of a situation full of people who have to see each other every day. A management company doesn’t see you every day, doesn’t know when you come home late, or notice when you put a potted plant on your stoop. And I think that makes a huge difference.
I think it’s so crucial to remember that we are each people in our homes. And to sort of hold on to the belief that we can reach each other, and we can see each other on the block.