Dallas — One sign of growth in North Texas’ theater scene is not just that there are more local playwrights being produced at local professional theaters—but that their work is becoming stronger, which is why theaters are taking the gamble.
Jonathan Norton is a great example of this. He has been a fixture on the scene for a decade or so, with short plays produced at TeCo Theatrical Productions’ annual New Play Competition and elsewhere. Norton’s first big undertaking with a full-length work was My Tidy List of Terrors in 2012 at South Dallas Cultural Center; and that same year he was one of three recipients of the inaugural Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund grants from TACA, for his play homeschooled, which was produced at African American Repertory Theatre in 2013. Recently, his short play The 67th Book of the Bible was seen in front of a packed Dallas City Performance Hall audience as part of the MLK Symposium.
Next up is a play he’s been developing for several years, Mississippi Goddamn, opening at the South Dallas Cultural Center this week. The development comes with the help of several grants secured by SDCC’s Vicki Meek. The play, which takes its title from the Nina Simone song of the same name, is set in Jackson, Miss., on the eve of Medgar Evers’ assassination. It’s directed by frequent Norton collaborator vickie washington and boasts a cast with Tyrees Allen, Whitney Coulter, Stormi Demerson, Calvin Gabriel, Jamal Sterling and Ashley Wilkerson.
TheaterJones chatted with Norton about the making of this play, his growth as a playwright and collaborating with washington.
When did you fall in love with the theater?
It’s almost as if there are two answers. In the sixth grade I went to see production of A Christmas Carol at Dallas Theater Center. DTC had the Art District Theater, which was an old barn right next to Booker T. Washington. Eugene Lee designed the set. He was also the set designer for Saturday Night Live. I remember being incredibly captivated with the performance and being curious about all the different elements and components that created this particular performance and about where the actors go when they’re not on stage. It kind of began then. And to a larger extent it was shaped more when I was 15 years old. I was in a production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at Theatre Three.
We ran for about six weeks with eight shows a week. I sat in the green room night after night and I had the opportunity to go on stage and speak this incredible language. I was immersed in the theatre in such a complete fashion by having that experience and being exposed to that language.
August Wilson is particularly challenging. How did you navigate that?
The following year I started taking playwriting classes at Booker T. Washington. The challenge was that the first plays I wrote in high school were like me trying to imitate August Wilson. As I grew older I learned about the real skill that he had and how at first it may appear simple but the thing that made him great was that his characters told amazing stories. The ability to do that takes a certain skill because within the storytelling there’s not really a lot happening dramatically, but there’s something about the way he does it.
So the playwriting bug bit at Booker T. Washington?
Yes! I studied playwriting with Elly Lindsay for three years and she was such a fabulous teacher. Actually, my first play produced at Booker T. was directed by vickie washington, and now she is directing Mississippi Goddamn.
So, this is not a directorial or artistic debut between you and vicki?
Not at all. She directed my first play at the Arts Magnet, Our Lady of South Oak Cliff: The Virgin Shenequa. It was about a teenaged mother who convinces her mother that the child she’s carrying is the second coming of Christ. That’s when my relationship with vickie washington grew—she directed the play. vickie was also in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone with me and before that I was in the Dallas Boys Choir with her son, Djore.
There is quite a bit of history and collaboration between us. And it’s been great working with her on this play. She’s been able to approach Mississippi Goddamn from an artistic side while giving equal importance and focus to both the cultural and political side of the story. She digs into the history of it and honors and celebrates the history of activism within the African American community. She’s very engaged. We’ve had some amazingly, rewarding conversations about Mississippi in 1963. And a lot of the key figures of the movement that few people know about. It’s been very supportive and helpful to me.
How did the journey with Mississippi Goddamn begin?
We’ve been working on this piece since October/November 2013. It began as a result of a trip I took with Dr. Dennis Simon, who teaches here at SMU, and each year he does a pilgrimage through the South. And we go to Jackson, Mississippi; Montgomery, Alabama; Little Rock; Oxford, Mississippi where Ol’ Miss is. In Jackson we visited the home of Medgar and Myrlie Evers. During our visit our tour guide explained to us that in the neighborhood a number of his neighbors tried to buy him out on several occasions and he turned down every offer. When I heard that story I immediately thought to myself, there is a play in there somewhere and using my imagination I thought, “to what extreme would someone do that?” Over the course of the trip I kept thinking about it. When I got back to school we had to write a 10-page final reflection paper of our trip. I didn’t want to write a 10-page reflection paper! I sent Dr. Simon an email and asked me if I could write the first act of a play, which of course would have been a lot more than writing a 10-page paper but writing the play would be a lot more fun and I would have an opportunity play with the idea about Medgar Evers.
So how many revisions have you done?
I wrote the first act in May 2011 and kept working on it over the summer. I finally had the first full draft in the summer of 2011. I did maybe one or two revisions of that first draft and submitted it to the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and it was a finalist in 2012. Only 30 plays are selected out of about 900. They pick 8 plays out of 30. It wasn’t picked but I had another offer to go to the PlayPenn New Play Development Conference in Philadelphia.
I understand you cut your teeth on the stage at TeCo Theatrical Productions with Teresa Coleman Wash, where, incidentally, the 13th New Play Competition also begins this weekend.
She encouraged me as a director. TeCo helped to nurture me as a director and Teresa encouraged my voice as a playwright and gave me free reign of the building! She’s my road dog.
When did you and Vicki Meek hook up for this project?
Vicki read one of the earlier drafts of the play and liked it a lot and indicated that she would like to produce it. But, instead of just producing it and be done with it, she wanted to develop it as well as refine and revise the script. I knew going in that I didn’t like the second act and I wanted to do something different with it.
You’ve had quite an unusual development process for most playwrights.
That time to spend with the play and to be able to have the support, do the revisions and have actors available to read it and audiences available to hear it and then have on-going support with actors, a director and funding to pay people is an amazing luxury. I had the opportunity to live with the play for almost two years. This never happens here. I think typically if a new work gets done you may have a few days to workshop it or to do a few readings. That kind of incredibly intense development just doesn’t happen here very often for local playwrights.
How does it feel to be loved like that?
It’s really cool. It’s all because of Vicki Meek and her supporting the development of new work for artists of color particularly. She gave me this thing called The Diaspora Performing Arts Commissioning Project in which she gives out commissions to support the development of new work. The big component of the commissioning program is the fact that work does get developed. We rarely have time to investigate and explore our work in a deep way. We get so used to rushing things to stage. We really wanted to develop a piece of work that may have legs and hopefully move beyond Dallas. And already that has taken shape because on March 23 the play is getting a reading at the Castillo Theatre in New York City. It’s just a one-night, reading but I’m really excited.
Talk to us about research—I was totally blown away at your dedication and commitment to research.
I currently probably have a $400 fine at [SMU’s] Fondren Library! I check out all these books and then they start sending me notices. They told me they could do a deduction from my payroll. They deduct and then I go and get more books! I love to do it. It’s fun for me. I like to dig and dig and dig. It’s a way to procrastinate and still be active. So I may not necessarily be writing a thing right now but I’m working, reading and researching! I’m doing something. I’m active. Also because I am interested in work about history—so you need to know what you’re talking about. For all the research you do only about 30 percent can actually go into the play because whatever you put in has to help drive the play forward. You have to take what you learn and distill it in a dramatic form.
So, with all that research, what was one of the driving forces of your writing?
In the early version [of the play], which was set in 1960, the character Robbie was part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). So there was this whole thing about SNCC and the student movement and that was part of the story. And, for me one of the driving forces of the play. I feel that there was an entire generation that really set the course of how we understand civil unrest and protest in this country and they’re really never recognized for it. And, whenever you talk about the counterculture movement, free love and hippies, the thing that really bothered me when I did my research I discovered that all of that had its roots in Freedom Summer in 1964.
Young white college students were coming from the different parts of the country to participate in this movement—to help register black voters. The experiences they were having, like living off the land, living in homes that didn’t have electricity or running water where you’d have to an outhouse to use the rest room, living in a world where you could no longer trust the police, politicians and people you thought would protect you, questioning authority and societal norms, I believe, began there in Mississippi. Then these students went back to their schools and communities and carried their experiences with them. And eventually it formed into something else and I wanted to recognize that. I think that might be part of another play soon.
Nina Simone’s lyrics in Mississippi Goddamn are explosive. How did it inform your writing?
I listened to it a lot more prior to getting into the depth of the play. Once I got into the play I had to be careful about how I allowed the lyrics to influence me. The play is inspired by the song, but it’s not necessarily a play about the song. I focused on the style of the song—it has this kind of irreverent, tongue-in-cheek quality to it and that is how the song inspired me. That was what I followed. Of all the protest songs [of that era], that one is completely in your face and difficult to categorize. It would certainly not be used in church service. The song, in and of itself, was a weapon and very sharp weapon. It was difficult to be made light of or be made into a simplistic anthem that everybody could sing, join hands and feel good about like “We Shall Overcome.” You don’t see a lot of people joining hands and singing “Mississippi Goddamn.” (See video of Nina Simone performing it below.)
When you were inspired to write this piece Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner were alive. The slogans “I Can’t Breathe,” or “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” didn’t exist as hashtags or rallying cries. Talk to us about art imitating life.
The theme of having the inability to breathe because of fear—of having your breath taken away has been in the play since at least March 2014. In fact one of the characters even says “I can’t breathe.” But after the murder of Eric Garner we discussed how we should handle it. Vickie washington’s response was to keep it and not back down and to maintain the integrity of the piece as it was originally written. We decided to not go back in and take anything out for fear of people saying we’re trying to piggyback off of the tragedy. It was in the play long before the, “I Can’t Breathe” movement. The reality, as vickie so eloquently put it is, “I Can’t Breathe” has been with our people for centuries.