Playwright Jonathan Norton on Writing the Show Nina Simone Sang About
Playwrights seek inspiration everywhere. Dallas-based writer Jonathan Norton is no exception. The prolific dramatist is constantly on the hunt for a good story, particularly one that strikes a chord with him.
For his newest play Mississippi Goddamn, inspiration arrived on a trip to the titular state where he was reminded of the history of a civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Growing up in the South, it seemed wrong to Norton how rarely he'd heard the story of the Evers family and he thought, "There's a play in there somewhere."
He's been workshopping this play for the past few months, thanks to the support of generous local grants, with a full production slated for next year. He's been inviting local actors, directors and audience members to hear the play and give feedback. Then, he burrows down somewhere quiet for a few months making edits. He's back with the newest version for a staged reading at the South Dallas Cultural Center at 7 p.m. Monday. Hear the story that turned Norton's head and stick around for the talkback. Earlier this week, we chatted with him this week about the show, the story and playwriting in Dallas.
You've been writing plays for quite some time now, what inspired the first one?
The first one was inspired by my mom and her co-workers. My mom worked in a nursing home and I wrote a play titled I Love You Miss Georgia set in a nursing home. I've recently written a new play that is inspired by that first play. It is called Seek First the Kingdom of God.... or, is it A Love Offering? I can't decide on a title. Dennis Raveneau who I've been working with likes Seek First, but I'm kinda partial to A Love Offering. Dennis' company CrossOver Arts Theatre should be doing it sometime soon, I believe.
Can you tell the story of how you found out about Medgar Evers?
I've always known about Medgar and Myrlie Evers and the story of Medgar's assassination. But I had never really thought of dramatizing it, or that it could be a piece of theater in some fashion.
The turning point for me was when I took part in SMU's Annual Civil Rights Pilgrimage and we visited the Evers' home in Jackson, Mississippi. During our visit, the tour guide explained that Medgar's neighbors (who were all African American) tried to buy him out on several occasions but he refused every offer. And Medgar traveled a lot - which meant that Myrlie was often home alone with the children with very few friends and allies in the neighborhood. I think she only had one really close friend on the block and everyone else was either hostile or indifferent. There was a lot of fear that having the Evers as neighbors put their families and livelihoods in jeopardy. Hearing this, I immediately thought to myself, "There's a play in there somewhere."
Did you immediately begin writing the play? Take us on the journey of the play's creation and development.
After we got back from the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, we had a ten-page reflection paper due. I wasn't feeling the ten-page paper so I convinced my professor, Dr. Dennis Simon to let me write a fifty to sixty page first act of a play inspired by my visit to the Evers' home. But somehow it never clicked [for me] that the play would be more work. So I wrote act one of Mississippi Goddamn for class. This was Spring 2011. I wrote the second act that summer. And in the fall of 2011 I submitted it to the O'Neill Playwrights Conference and it scored me a finalist spot. Top 30 out of 900 scripts. And being a Finalist for the O'Neill is actually a really big thing - so it looked like I might be on to something. But after that, nothing happened with it.
I did get offers from some really amazing theater's literary departments to read it and evaluate it for production consideration. So that at least put me on some folks' radar. But I knew that I wanted to do more work on it. I just couldn't figure out how to do it in a way that wasn't just me sitting alone in my room writing. So one day Vicki Meek of the South Dallas Cultural Center took me out to lunch and offered me a commission to finish developing the play and produce it at the Center. Vicki won a 2014 Mastermind Award from the Dallas Observer - so I kind of think she knows what she's doing. And here we are. Vicki was the first person I let read the play back in summer 2011. She read it right after we did My Tidy List of Terrors at the Center. So it's kind of a full-circle thing.
I was given the resources and incredibly generous funding to create a very extensive six-month long workshop process. We've had three smaller reading since November 2013, which will culminate in a five-day rehearsal process and staged reading this coming Monday. The coolest part is that I got to hire one of my mentors, Vickie Washington to direct. I've been working on the play with Vickie since October, and that collaboration has been the most rewarding part of the Mississippi Goddamn journey.
Why did this story matter to you?
I don't really have a hugely noble reason for why I wrote this play or why it matters to me. With this play I was compelled by the conversation the story seemed to have with Clybourne Park and A Raisin in the Sun. A lot of my work seems to be about community and how often "the American dream" comes in conflict with African communal values.
Have you been satisfied with the development process?
Development is sometimes a very dirty word in new play circles. I understand how "development hell" happens. But this really hasn't been my experience at all. In fact, I think the extended process has given me time to really crack the play wide open. Honestly, I was so afraid when Vicki offered me this chance. Yes, I wanted to work on the play - very much so. But I had no idea what to do with it. And I was afraid I would waste the Center's time and money. But Vicki loved the play and believed in me. And once I started working with Vickie Washington - it all just opened up. And knowing that I had time ahead of me to get it right, also helped. It wasn't a one-shot kinda thing. I'm trying to look at things more like a progression of steps and mini-victories as opposed to huge breaks.... although that would be nice.
In a perfect world, what would life for a playwright be like in Dallas?
Here's the thing, theater artists are gypsies. We travel from job to job - theater to theater. Dallas area actors, directors, designers can create healthy careers for themselves in this community. They might not make much money (hardly any, even) - but there is still opportunity for very respectable and meaningful work on a more consistent basis. But that's not a s true for writers. Playwrights are the ultimate gypsies. To be successful, fed, nurtured, somewhat decently compensated - we and our work must travel from community to community, town to town We have to extend our reach nationally. It's difficult for playwrights living out in the regions, because professionally things are very New York focused or focused on communities or organizations that the field considers to be serious incubators of new talent and new work.
So, I say all that to say - in a perfect world Dallas playwrights would have more funding opportunities and organizational support to seriously develop our craft and network with the national theater community.
I know what folks are thinking. "What makes playwrights so damn special? Find some grants, apply and stop whining" But it is a bit more complicated than that and I think there needs to be more awareness of the need. The TACA Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund, which I was one of three inaugural recipients, woo-woo. It's a great step in the right direction. But that's project based support. The purpose is to create a new work of art. And that is an awesome and important thing. But now we now need more local funding opportunities that support the how of what playwrights do. We need fellowships, residencies and travel grants. I'm all about travel. Put a brother on a plane.
Finally, you named the play for a Nina Simone song, explain.
Aside from the fact that it is a great title - and people who know the song love it, there is the fact of how the song opens. Nina opens the song with a spoken intro. She says, "This is a show-tune but the show has been written for it yet." So I thought, that I should write the show.