DeSoto — When the first round of grants in TACA's Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund was announced in 2012, local writer Jonathan Norton was one of the three recipients, and no one was more surprised than he was. From a total of $100,000 in the fund, he received $25,000, along with David Lozano and Cara Mía Theatre Company, whose The Dreamers: A Bloodline, opened in June. The work from the third grantee, Will Power, who received $50,000, will be seen in a future season at the Dallas Theater Center.
Norton's play, homeschooled, opened this weekend at African American Repertory Theater in DeSoto. It deals with three mothers who have their children in a homeschool situation, and what happens when one child learns about the tragic history of African Americans in the 20th century South, much to her mother's chagrin.
Norton's previous plays include My Tidy List of Terrors, presented at the South Dallas Cultural Center in 2012, and numerous works that have premiered at TeCo Theatrical Productions. In 2014, another new work, Mississippi Goddam, named after the Nina Simone song, will premiere at the South Dallas Cultural Center. He's had his work developed at PlayPenn, and was a finalist for the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program.
TheaterJones chatted with Norton about homeschooled, the importance of this grant, and working with African American Repertory Theater for the first time.
TheaterJones: Jonathan, how did you and African American Repertory Theater use the money from the TACA grant?
Jonathan Norton: We used it primarily going forward to add more time to the rehearsal period—a week and a half. AART rehearsal period is 3 ½ weeks, and we did about five weeks. That afforded me a lot or more time with table work. We were also able to hire the design team we wanted and three Equity actors [Denise Lee, Eleanor T. Threatt Hardy and Ebony Marshall-Oliver]. We've been able to put together a production that we wouldn't have without the money.
You paid yourself something, right?
Yes, of course.
Who had the idea of applying for the grant?
[AART Artistic Director] Regina [Washington] called me out of the blue and asked me if I'd like to work with AART to apply for this grant. Had that opportunity not been made available, I might not have written this play. This is them putting faith in you, and you know that what you write is going to be developed. As playwrights you do so much on spec or on faith, but it's really nice to create something and know that something is going to happen with it; it kind of changes how you write the play.
Where did you get the idea for homeschooled?
When I was in first grade, in D.I.S.D., I had this teacher and she split the class in two, with the white kids on one side and the black kids on the other side. She said [imitates her dramatic speech] “hundreds and hundreds of years ago, this side of the room would have owned this side of the room.” And she started talking about slavery and Jim Crow and Rosa Parks, and I remember being really angry at my parents for not telling me about all this yet. That has always stayed with me. It was the realization of how much of our history is so painful that it's hard to talk about.
Sometimes as artists you feel this obligation to tell this kind of story. We all have a unique history, and there's not one way to tell a story. I always wonder if I'll ever write a play that's not about race, and then think “why should I have to think about that?” Theater offers you that framework in which to discuss those things. It can be cathartic. What I try to do is tell a really good, engaging story, and hope that these more difficult things have a way of filtering in.
This is a world premiere, not a workshop?
This is the world premiere. Regina has had this very strong commitment to the idea of being the first theater to birth this particular play, and trying everything in her power to make sure that this production can speak to the initial impulses I had in creating the play. She wants to make sure it's a production that can stand on its own and can be a model for how it plays out [in its future life].
I was in the table-work process of rehearsal, and I was impressed by the fact that she's been with this process from the very beginning. Sometimes as a playwright you'll feel a need to explain something [to a director], but this time, she can finish my sentences. She's seen every draft, she knows every change, every minor change.
How has the work changed throughout the development process, in the readings and during rehearsals?
What's interesting is that it's pretty close to the initial pitch. I conceived the idea a few years ago, and it has stayed the same idea. Initially it was just three women, but now there's a girl added. It's also more of an ensemble piece. I really wanted there to be a character that you could follow on a journey, to have a more centralized character.
The second round of TACA Donna Wilhelm New Works Fund grants has been announced. What do you hope a fund like this, created for developing new work, will do for the Dallas arts community?
I hope that the success of it inspires other philanthropists in the community to create similar funding, something that is artist-specific and artist-centered.