Marie Thomas had always been a writer, but she had never written a play before deciding to quit her job to write and direct The Noir Door, a six-act production about the experience of being a Black woman, for Black women.
After graduating college, Thomas had been hired to write press releases, emails and grant proposals for Girls Inc. of Metro Denver, a women’s youth empowerment organization. Thomas, now 25, believed in the work. And it was exciting that someone believed in her writing abilities. But she found it difficult to pursue her own creative interests outside of work. She would come home after a long day and not have the energy to write. Often, she tried to find time to write while at the office, scribbling in her journal between tasks, or else keeping an extra tab open while taking notes during a meeting to write a poem or a story.
“I just couldn’t get rid of the urge to write for myself,” Thomas said. “When I write, I feel closest to God. Like, I feel my ancestors.
“It’s only something I can describe through writing,” she continued. “No one can take my words away from me. Once they’re written, they’re there. They’re mine. And I can put words together in any combination that I want. And something about that is so freeing to me. And I feel so powerful … That high, that feeling, so surreal. ”
In June 2021, Thomas quit, telling her boss she wanted to pursue her passion for writing and that if everything goes according to plan, she’ll have produced a play. But she promised to give a portion of the play’ proceeds to the organization.
“From then on, to be completely honest, everything just sort of fell into place,” Thomas said. “A lot of things were just by chance or luck.”
In October 2021 Thomas invited friends over to dinner. They crammed into her tiny apartment and she cooked for them, and watched as they read a draft of her play, a mystical comedy about Black culture inspired by The Twilight Zone series. After getting their feedback, she got to work, building the play from the ground up. She didn’t know what kind of budget she would need, so she came up with a random number: $12,000. She started raising money, asking people she knew for donations. In a matter of months, she had $6,000.
But fundraising plateaued after that, and Thomas started to worry. For the better part of a year, Thomas worked long hours as a barista and server to raise funds for the project. She started picking up extra shifts and was averaging 50 hours a week.
“Just because I was so scared,” Thomas said. “Like, Oh, it doesn’t matter if I get grants or donations and sponsors. I’ll just pay for it myself if I have to.”
One Monday, during one of those extra shifts, a serendipitous encounter put her over the threshold. During that shift, she met a woman who told Thomas she had a bright spirit and a nice smile. That woman, co-founder of a new nonprofit called UpSwing Foundation, invited Thomas to lunch a few days later. Thomas said she was hesitant but decide to go. They talked for hours. Thomas told her about the play she was working on, and the woman insisted on helping Thomas fund it.
“And literally, like, two weeks after knowing her, she gave me a check for $7,000,” Thomas said.
Thomas said that’s kind of how things went throughout the process of building the play. In December, Thomas started looking for a theatre space. She made calls and knocked on doors but kept hearing from venues that they were booked or that the space was outside of Thomas’ budget. Someone connected her with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance’s theatre rental contact, who offered to let her rent out the 240-seat venue on scholarship. And when Thomas looked for a place to hold auditions, she asked the owner of her local coffee shop, Hooked on Colfax, if she could hold auditions out of their basement space, promising to list the shop as a sponsor in thanks. Thomas said they let her use the space for free.
“It’s so humbling. And it’s sometimes overwhelming, but at the same time, it’s just kind of not surprising,” Thomas said. “I know that kind of sounds crazy, but to me, I’m like, Oh, more signs that it’s all meant to be.”
Nine months after Thomas quit her job, her play is about to become a reality. She cast both seasoned and first-time actors to fill all 19 roles, and hired a five-person crew, some of whom have never worked on a play before. She said she was able to pay everyone involved and also provides dinner for the cast and crew at rehearsals.
“There were times where I would get in my head and have a lot of fear-based thoughts like, am I gonna do it? Am I gonna sell any tickets?” she said. “And one thing that was really hard was just having to hide that from everybody. Because I felt like I set the tone for how everyone else is going to view the successes of production. And if I act like I don’t feel like there’s gonna be any success, or if I act like I feel like we’re gonna fail somewhere, then they’ll know. So I never let them know that that’s how I was feeling at times.”
The Noir Door, directed and written by Thomas, will premiere at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance’s Five Points theatre space this weekend.
The world “noir” in the title speaks to the tone of the play — eerie and strange, and a little bit dark — and also refers to the term misogynoir, a word meaning misogyny toward Black women.
“Black women have such a distinct experience, or are treated badly so often, or in this niche way, that they were able to coin a term for it,” Thomas explained.
These concepts, which had been circulating through Thomas’ head for years, were a big part of her inspiration for the play. She wanted to explore them through the lens of humor.
“I thought, How can I talk about these things, or give commentary to my experience as a young Black woman, but make it interesting or make it more thought-provoking or make it more out there?” she said. “I just wanted to explore the themes of the topics in a way that was light-hearted, or created to show the audience that we don’t always have to tackle these conversations. In a way that’s so heavy-hearted.”
The play is split into six surreal vignettes using magical realism to comment on the experience of young Black women. Each story is self-sustaining, but they all take place in the same alternate universe.
“It’s sort of like The Twilight Zone in terms of weirdness, or the way I present these topics,” she said.
Except that instead of “entering the Twilight Zone” at the beginning of the play, the audience will enter through the metaphorical “Noir Door.”
For example, in one vignette, a teacher is talking to a class of students about the concept of proximity to Blackness.
“We always hear about societal standards or proximity to whiteness and how that affords us privilege,” Thomas said. “But I wanted to talk about the other end of the spectrum that has to exist, in my mind.”
The story imagines a reality in which, instead of people seeing themselves and each other in relation to whiteness, everyone is approximated to Blackness. In Thomas’s imagining, the student in the scene all wear uniforms in various shades of pink — a commentary on uniformity and a play on the variety of earth tones ye (né Kanye West) wears in his Sunday Service videos, but also part of artistic decision to bring elements of camp into the entire production. Thomas said other vignettes include a sketch about witches who own a beauty salon, a cameo from “some small creatures,” people who grow flowers for hair, and a story about gentrification.
Thomas hopes the play gets the audience thinking about the possibilities.
“I want them to have a lot of ‘what if’ thoughts of their own. Like, what if witches are real? What if all the things that we had deemed fictional at some point are actually real?” she said. “I want them to leave smiling, and with a lot of their own ‘what if’ thoughts.”
She says that once the play ends, she could use a second to rest. But this play is just the start for Thomas.
“It is amazing. It’s so surreal. I feel so excited,” Thomas said. “I don’t feel like it’s coming to an end. I felt like I’m just getting started. You know, this is my first show. A lot of us, this is our first show. And we’ve almost sold 300 tickets. And I think that’s pretty good. If you ask me.”
And Thomas has kept her promise to her old workplace. She plans to give 10% of the show’s profits to Girls Inc. Another 10% will go to local nonprofit Voices on Canvas Inc.
“Being able to benefit, in any way, shape or form, young girls, a lot of whom are Black and brown — you know, that’s almost like being able to benefit myself, in a way,” Thomas said. “And Voices on Canvas, being able to let city kids explore the arts is so necessary. It’s giving them power.”
The Noir Door runs April 15 and 16 at 119 Park Avenue West. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased online.