PUTTING ETHNIC, BLACK, AND HISPANIC ART ON STAGE
Words by Ashley Hurst
Photos by Jonathan Wade
As N. Emil Thomas was looking forward to graduating from college with a degree in directing and stage management and planning a move to Seattle, he received a phone call from his dad that began with a cryptic, “Emil, I did a thing.” After asking—more than once—what this “thing” was, his dad finally said, “I have a theater. It’s ours.”
Despite being born with Erb’s palsy in his right arm, which is caused by damage to the nerves in the shoulder at birth and limits movement and development, N. Emil Thomas was raised to believe that there’s always a way.
Emil was raised in Georgia from the time he was eight by Puerto Rican New Yorker parents (or “Nuyoricans,” as Emil calls them). He discovered a love for musical theater in middle school, and it was through theater that he feels he was able to blossom into who he truly is. He attended Cobb County Center for Excellence in the Performing Arts, where he studied acting and vocal performance. It was here that he found a passion for directing. His advisor saw in him skills and strengths that would lend themselves to a talent in directing, and Emil acted as an assistant director during his senior year. He also became active in the new film program, which gave him and his classmates opportunities to explore multi-genre storytelling.
As high school graduation loomed, Emil applied to 22 colleges and universities, ultimately settling on Ball State University in Indiana. It offers one of the few undergraduate directing and stage management programs in the country, but initially Emil planned to study as an actor and go back for his Master’s in directing afterwards.
During his first semester, one of his professors pushed him toward the directing program instead, assuring him that he belonged there. “It was a huge push of hope and reassurance that this was really the path meant for me,” Emil says.
He also has a passion for raising awareness of inequality, which led to the creation of the Ethnic Theatre Alliance. Emil shares that the mission of ETA is to raise awareness on inequality through theater, to unify the university, and to create a way to share information about things happening around the world. This also gave Emil another space in which he could hone his leadership skills.
Emil’s dad, Raul Thomas, is a chef, and while catering an event he overheard a conversation about an attempt to relaunch the theater in the Square in Marietta, Georgia. After joining the conversation, he decided to invest in the theater. It wasn’t long before he realized they were barreling headfirst toward failure and decided to buy out his partners. This led to his cryptic “I did a thing” phone call to Emil.
“It was such a surreal moment, “ Emil says. “One of those moments that makes you reevaluate what you think the universe is telling you.”
He flew home over Thanksgiving break to look at the space and then told his dad, “I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.”
“But what about school?” his dad asked. “You can’t leave school. You’ve got to graduate!”
Emil firmly answered, “I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.”
He returned to school and immediately met with his advisor. “My dad got me a theater. A 225-seat proscenium space, and I need to get down there ASAP.” An off-campus internship was created that would allow Emil to return to Marietta and get things underway with the new theater while still graduating. He didn’t fully know what it would take, but he had a dream to put ethnic, black, and Hispanic art on stage. And now he had a stage to make that dream happen: Marietta’s NEW Theatre in the Square.
“Our first season was short, and we started with Next to Normal. It’s a beautiful story, but it was the worst production I’ve ever done,” Emil laughs. “It really showed me all of the weakest points in myself as an artist, but that was also a great thing.”
Now preparing to enter their fifth season, Emil, Marietta’s NEW Theatre in the Square, and Actors Theatre of Georgia have enjoyed critical acclaim and multiple awards. In 2017 Emil was awarded BroadwayWorld’s Atlanta Best Director and Play, and his holiday adaptation of Gift of the Magi 2.0 is up for multiple Metropolitan Atlanta Theatre Awards.