Thomas toughens up in '12×9'


Like any ingenuity-infused individual, Fred Thomas Jr. has known the annoyances that often arise when determining the best means for placing one’s talents. Anyone can create simply to serve self-interest, but the product of the 1500 block of Wharton Street yearns to encourage strength among viewers of his work, especially those whose hope has become dormant. He will further fixate on forging focus tomorrow through Sunday with the East Coast debut of his play “12’X9,’” a heavily acclaimed, prison-situated nod to identifying and correcting mistakes.

“I want for it to give promise to audiences,” the former Point Breeze inhabitant and present California denizen said of his examination of contemporary incarceration. “I’d like people to see that if they’re sincere about modifying themselves, they can change so many lives.”

Thomas conceived the two-act brainchild, which received a Hollywood staging for its 2007 premiere, through encounters with close friends, who, rather than discovering solutions to similar setbacks, retreated to figurative cells to seek answers in solitude. That notion of neglecting others when needing their input compelled him to craft the tales of three federal criminals who must combine coping mechanisms when a jailhouse fire leads to shared living quarters.

“I believe it stands out because of its honesty,” the creative force said of the ’12 NAACP Theatre Award winner for best director, playwright and producer. “It looks at the consequences of actions through the eyes of men who can’t channel their energy intensely enough to be well-adjusted.”

Since the five-scene work’s inception, Thomas has handled the character of Train and will reprise the role at the North Philly-based New Freedom Theatre. A compilation of many figures from his life, the menacing personality represents the risks of resorting to conniving and hustling to survive.

“He has a Masters in street smarts,” Thomas said of Train, whom a “12’X9’” press release tabs as “a vicious sociopath and habitual offender.” “There are many levels to him, and I’m looking to hit them all by realizing what can happen when we draw from our pain.”

In doing so, the thespian is conveying his creation’s intensity and vulnerability in efforts to intensify his own craft and, more importantly, incite discussions of redemption and regard for others’ recovery processes from a number of ills. The former quest certainly stands to have many admirers through his presenting the play in his hometown, but Thomas derives more joy from the latter, as stressing camaraderie resounds as his artistic mission.

“We all need perspective and opportunities to see strength within ourselves, which are elements that ‘12’X9’ offers,” he said of the opus, which he hopes to take to Broadway. “It’s one thing for me to give my all just to become a better actor, but at the end of this run or whatever other stagings it has, if it manages to change lives, I’ve done my job.”

The 30-something factotum has honed creative passions since the age of 8, when as a student at St. Rita of Cascia School, formerly Broad and Ellsworth streets, he started writing, producing and directing sketches. A tireless laugh inducer, he gravitated toward comedy quickly, with Steve Martin and Richard Pryor as influences. Though hysterics helped to shape his identity, journalism seemed “the concrete thing” when he matriculated at Lincoln University.

“Drama eventually fell in my lap,” Thomas, also an alumnus of St. John Neumann High School, formerly 2600 Moore St., now Ss. Neumann-Goretti High School, 1736 S. 10th St., said of his present passion. “At Lincoln, I worked on some student stuff, but writing appeared to be my destiny.”

Actualizing that vision required effort and underwent a reconfiguration, as the abounding-in-ambition presence pondered how to become a more viable wielder of worthwhile ideas. Thomas enhanced his professional wherewithal through an internship with MTV and an apprenticeship with the Philadelphia Drama Guild, the latter producing a coveted “can’t-stop-now” moment through his assisting a production of August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running.”

“That was my first real leap into directing, and I realized I wanted to do so much,” Thomas said of desiring multiple creative outlets. “I needed to build on my craft and really get at what I could contribute to the scene.”

He obtained a Masters from Temple University, founding the institution’s Black Media Collective, and became aligned with The Big Picture Alliance, an endeavor through which he helped students to devise projects on contemporary matters. Crafting the South Philly-shot “The Shepherd’s Story” as his thesis film, he started California dreaming upon graduating and brewed up a bit of bravado through Budweiser’s immensely popular “Whassup” campaign in ’10. Combatting the cutthroat qualities of the Los Angeles entertainment business, he challenged himself to obtain autonomy and relied on his roots to ramp up his resilience.

“We’re from a fighting city,” he said of Philadelphians. “I knew I could show enough resolve to get through lean times.”

A ride on SEPTA helped to finalize the scope of “12’X9,’” with Thomas confessing that his birth city’s influence comes through in some of his commended play’s looks at finding avenues for goodness when negativity seeks to dominate.

“I’ve felt very fortunate to have received such a reception for this,” he said of “12’X9,’” which he had wanted to give its East Coast launch a few years ago. “It’s heartfelt and unapologetic about what people go through, but, it’s also a bit of a morality play.”

Along with the success of the piece, Thomas has garnered acclaim for co-writing, directing and producing TV ONE’s R&B Diva Los Angeles-featured stage play “What Would A Diva Do? Divalogues,” directing the independent film “24-Hour Love” and helping to produce “Men in Black 3.” Though he resides in California and yearns to make “12’X9’” a New York smash, he has not forsaken Philadelphia, as he is seeking support for “Broad Street Diner,” a film project that has caught Danny Glover’s interest.

“I want to keep giving it my all,” Thomas said. “If we really apply ourselves, there are no limits.”

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