By Lolis Eric Elie
I got to know Oliver Thomas when he was a district councilman and I was a newspaper columnist. I had written a series of columns about a set of historic buildings on Canal Street that a developer wanted to destroy and replace with a new development. Councilman Thomas had expressed sympathy, if not support, for the plan. I blasted him and in response, his message on my voice mail reminded me that he had heard many such protests before.
After lunch at a Senegalese restaurant, we still disagreed about that issue and a host of other land use disputes. But I walked away from that lunch with an understanding of a truism of New Orleans politics: Nobody doesn’t like Oliver Thomas.
Even now, after his political career ended in the scandal that we portray this season, he is still quite popular here. People like him, not so much despite his corruption conviction as because of the fact that he has an expansive warmth and a concern for the average New Orleanian. Perhaps that’s why “Reflections,” the autobiographical play he wrote with Anthony Bean, was sold out virtually every night.
Playing myself on ‘Treme’ has been quite an experience. I've gotten calls from people all over the country who have tracked me down to ask if it's really me.
I enjoy acting; it's a great release for me. I had to act and try to blend in with the other great actors and many professionals who do this everyday, so I was always aware of the fact that I had to do my best to make sure that my work was believable. I did my best and most people seem to enjoy it. Besides, I remember Jon Seda and I rehearsing for a scene, and him saying “I don't know why they asked me to rehearse this with you, because you're doing better than me.” Then he said ,"After all, politicians are some of the best actors in the world!” I thought that was funny. Jon and I really had a good time working together, and people tell me everyday that he and I have good chemistry.
So as an actor, and that's what I am, I have to feel good about that. It was harder for me to do the hit play “Reflections” that I co-wrote and starred in at Anthony Bean Theater. That was a lot more emotional and more real, because it was honest content. We just changed the names of many of the characters.
Most of the time ‘Treme’ didn't feel real for me because it's not real. It's acting. And that's the beauty of a great show like ‘Treme,’ how effective the writers and producers are. The time it was most emotional for me was when I counseled Sofia on the loss of her father when she was so upset that he committed suicide. Mentally, that brought me back to finding my brother in our hotel room after Hurricane Katrina. So that was very emotional to me.
Our nation seems to have a reputation for being corrupt, and forgive me for contributing to that, but Louisiana is a great place with the most colorful people in the world, with some of the worst social problems, and poverty amongst children, and African-Americans. But we're no worse than any other place, and it's unfair to all the good people who live here!
What have I been doing? Wow! A lot, mostly working with young people here at Covenant House; these kids are so special, but homeless. Every child and teenager should have their own bed. That's corruption too. But I like motivating them and telling their story and helping them heal in spite of their situation. Unfortunately, just like Katrina, ain't nobody riding in on a white horse to save them. So they have to accept responsibility for their own lives and work hard with the staff here to restructure and stabilize their lives. Covenant House is their safe haven, and we fight hard here every day to save God's children.
I also work with ex-cons who return home and motivate them to be part of the solution and atone their lives for the crimes committed against our society. And I especially like motivating black men to be more involved in our communities and our families, and especially be better parents, and fathers. And last but not least, I'm acting and writing, and producing. I’m also working on a book called,"Addicted To The Risk," with attorney Bill Abbott. I’m doing a lot of motivational speaking to different groups all over. One of the greatest gifts God gives us is the ability to be better each day in spite of what we go through as individuals or as a city!