Dallas — In July 2009, Jonathan Norton penned an essay “A Place at the Table” for a then-new TheaterJones.com. He put the question to Dallas theatrical producers: why are you not producing the works of local playwrights? In 2014, HowlRound published Norton’s essay sequel, “A Place at the Table Revisited.” He used that one as a sort of self-evaluated report card and update to the original essay. By then, Norton was part of the Dallas Theater Center’s first Dallas Playwrights Workshop and had been the recipient of TACA’s New Works grants. In 2015, his play Mississippi Goddamn at the South Dallas Cultural Center took him to new heights, and it won the national Elizabeth M. Osborn Award for emerging playwrights.
This past January 2019, his play penny candy opened on the mainstage at the Dallas Theater Center, Dallas’ largest theater company — one of only two LORT organizations in Texas — and one of the organizations Norton had challenged in his 2009 essay. He is now the Playwright-in-Residence there.
Now, Kitchen Dog Theater is producing the world premiere of A Love Offering. It would appear that Norton has a place at the table in Dallas. (And he’s moving into Fort Worth; Jubilee Theatre will revive his early play My Tidy List of Terrors in 2020.)
A Love Offering was inspired largely by his mother and another woman who worked in nursing homes. When Norton was in high school, sometimes he would hang out wherever his mom was working. It seemed odd to him at the time that the majority of these workers were African-Americans, taking care of older white patients. Some of the patients had dementia, others Alzheimer’s. A Love Offering is a celebration of those strong women and the work that they do, and of the different ways they sacrifice.
Tina Parker, the co-artistic director of Kitchen Dog Theater who directs A Love Offering, came up with a way of looking at the play by examining how caregiving can be as bruising as it is healing. People who work in nursing homes do not have access to 60 Minutes to get their stories out.
“T'Wana, the main character, has to navigate a system of circumstances largely created by various aspects of injustice and racism that create this prison of limitations,” Norton says. “She represents some many of these workers who are met with challenges that continually knock them down. These are women who due to education or criminal justice system or excruciating poverty find themselves in situations where it was nearly impossible to do anything other than be a nurses’ aide. It is almost impossible for someone like T'Wana to get another job.”
“People talk about pulling yourself up by bootstraps without realizing how impossible that is to do for some people,” he continues. “These caregivers often endure ill treatment by the patients. A [ridesharing] driver after rehearsal asked what the play was about. I said there is an attack that happens, and the driver thought it would have been the worker being violent. We are so accustomed to seeing the black worker as the violent one, but not the patients.”
Over the years, writers on this site have talked to Norton about his works and his personal story. These conversations centered more on the play development, which is what his essay was really about. That development process involves more than the script.
The journey to his place at the table has not been easy. Ask him and he will tell you that without the touches of an array of people along the way, he might not have arrived at this place in his career at this time. With this play those people include Dennis Raveneau (director and actor), Tina Parker, and Katherine Owens (late co-founder and artistic director of Undermain Theatre).
“The development of the play is very important. It all started with actor-director Dennis Raveneau who was looking for something to workshop for the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park,” Norton says. “A Love Offering was chosen, and Matthew Tomlanovich was in the cast. It was Dennis who suggested it to Tina Parker, who was interested in material for inclusion in the cross-pollination at National New Play Network.”
Kitchen Dog, is a founding NNPN theater, submitted A Love Offering for this program, in which two network theaters would share playwrights from their community with theatres in another communities. InterAct in Philadelphia workshopped the play.
In 2017 Jonathan was approached by Owens. She told him about a new play-reading festival they had planned (Whither Goest Thou America). She asked if he was interested in including anything in their festival. He told her about A Love Offering and she put it in their inaugural festival in April 2018.
“It was my first time having this really one-two punch of development experience where I had the two weeks of working at Undermain, and then got to take what I had learned from Undermain and apply it to the new draft for cross-pollination that would happen in Philly,” says Norton, who has come to respect process. “At the end of rehearsal process at Undermain, I wondered what would happen if the father was actually in the play? What if instead of it happening in a conference room, it actually happened in his room? I was able to sit in Undermain and map these new ideas in my mind as I was watching the core play. The Dallas performance is basically that new draft I took to Philly. It incorporated the world of the nursing home.”
“It was such an enormous gift to have those two experiences so close together, to see the play and explore the play in those dimensions,” he adds. “Dennis directed the Undermain production. Had the Undermain experience not been made possible for me, that crucial aspect of the play would likely not have happened.”
At Undermain, a theater he admired but had not worked out, he finally got to know Owens.
“What was cool about their festival was that we had three more opportunities after that to map new ideas on the play,” he says. “I met Katherine and Bruce [DuBose] at an event in the arts district in 2016. They invited me to a party they were having at their place. I excitedly told them about how Elly Lindsay [his teacher at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts] had taken students to Undermain, and how it was in that theatre where I learned about Suzi-Lori Parks [Undermain produced her early work Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom].
About a week later, Owens and DuBose gave Norton a season pass to Undermain; and have done so every season since. She would email him about various workshops she heard about. In summer 2017, she took him to lunch to talk with about the new play festival. With the exception of that first meeting and seeing them in the lobby and chatting, there was not a relationship.
“She was the kindest and most generous person,” Norton says of Owens, who died this summer. “It was at Undermain that I had my a-ha moment. A Love Offering would never have happened had it not been for them.”
Speaking of theaters he has loved but had never worked with before, the Kitchen Dog opportunity came at a pivotal point in his career. penny candy was also being workshopped and planned for a full production at DTC — and given their audience size, it stood to introduce him to a whole new audience.
“This is my first time working with Kitchen Dog. I had always wanted to,” Norton says. “The fun thing is that the company is so grounded in ensemble work. I have the opportunity to watch this play come alive by the mythical KDT process at work. They often do warmups and theatre games to get their bodies ready for rehearsal and ground them and bring the actors together as an ensemble. It’s useful too because artists are often rushing from their day jobs to rehearsal and having to jump immediately into rehearsal. KDT being really sensitive to the fact that how one enters into the rehearsal process helps to shape the play and bring the company together. This is especially important with this play, which is very tight and cohesive.”
In his 2009 essay the newly emergent Jonathan Norton said, “I really believe regional theater audiences are hungry for work that is about them, for them and created by one of their own.” He has since expressed some embarrassment about that essay, referring to it as a rant, but he shouldn’t be embarrassed. Here’s the thing about rants: they are sometimes exactly what needs to be said at the time. Norton’s observation then was apt.
Whether it was result of that essay, in the current decade professional theaters like Kitchen Dog, Second Thought Theatre, Theatre Three, Stage West, WaterTower Theatre, Amphibian Stage, Circle Theatre, and Dallas Theater Center have been investing in local writers, including Norton, Michael Federico, Matt Lyle, Blake Hackler, Janielle Kastner, and others.
Audiences do indeed enjoy seeing themselves onstage. This time, the offering of love is to the caregivers among us.