When playwright Cori Thomas is asked about her personal connection to Pa's Hat: Liberian Legacy, opening at Pillsbury House Theatre tonight, she lets loose with a laugh. "It's very autobiographical," she says. "Baldly and unabashedly autobiographical. I haven't even changed my name, or my Dad's name, in the play."
|Regina Marie Williams, Bruce A. Young, and Namir Smallwood in "Pa's Hat"|
Thomas goes on to explain the circumstances depicted in the show, which turn out to comprise a harrowing real-life story.
"My father was the Liberian ambassador to many countries when I was growing up," Thomas says. "In 1980 there was a coup overthrowing the government he was representing. My uncle was killed, and many friends and people he worked with were killed. Then (my father) was called to come back for judgment.
Thomas's family was in New York at the time; sensibly enough, her father declined the demand to return home and face the new regime. He was denounced in Liberia as a traitor and an enemy of the country, and lost everything he owned in the country where his family had lived for generations.
20 years passed and, at the age of 83 in 2000, Thomas's father decided that it was time to return. By then, Liberia was 11 years into a civil war and regarded as one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Thomas vehemently did not want to go there, but as the eldest child of the family she was elected to travel with her father.
"Once my Dad got an idea in his head, it was hard to dissuade him," Thomas says.
Apparently so. In any event, father and daughter found a country torn apart, with little infrastructure and all the attendant lethal chaos of civil strife.
"It was just horrible," Thomas says of a trip that involved a great deal of danger and more suspense than even the hardiest of us would seek out. "I was almost shot by a child soldier while I was taking a picture of a market," she says. "He thought I was taking pictures of buildings or something."
The Pillsbury House production is a world premiere directed by (City Pages
2009 Best Director) Marion McClinton
. Thomas's father died last year, but he saw a staged reading of "Pa's Hat" and approved--with one reservation.
"He wasn't thrilled with the title," Thomas explains. "He said it sounded 'a little trite.'"
Pa's Hat: Liberian Legacy runs through June 27 at Pillsbury House Theatre. For tickets call 612.825.0459 or click here.