100 Dallas Creatives: No. 20 Playwright Jonathan Norton, Man of Many Words

Playwright Jonathan Norton's The 67th Book of the Bible premieres this month at City Performance Hall.
Playwright Jonathan Norton's The 67th Book of the Bible premieres this month at City Performance Hall.

Mixmaster presents "100 Creatives," in which we feature cultural entrepreneurs of Dallas in random order.

Lots of people write plays. Not many get plays produced and put on a stage for audiences to see. Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton has been getting his plays out of his head, onto the page and onto lots of stages since he was 15.

Now in his late 30s, Norton, whose day job is managing McFarlin Auditorium at SMU, is about to see two of his latest plays come to life. First up is the world premiere of The 67th Book of the Bible, based on real-life events surrounding Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." It's getting a special production at 7 p.m. Monday, January 19, at City Performance Hall, presented by Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture as part of the 2015 MLK Symposium. (Tickets are $10-$20 and available at the door or through the institute.) Will Power, Dallas Theater Center's playwright-in-residence, is producing the performance. Chicago's Derrick Sanders directs a cast featuring Dallas actors Dennis Raveneau, Kenneisha Thompson and Vontress Mitchell.

Then in mid-February, Norton's play Mississippi Goddamn, commissioned by the Diaspora Performing Arts program, opens at the South Dallas Cultural Center (February 19-March 8). This one examines relationships among a group of Mississippi neighbors in the years before the 1963 assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The production stars Tyrees Allen, Stormi Demerson, Calvin Gabriel, Jamal Sterling and Ashley Wilkerson. vickie washington (sic) directs.

Born in Houston, Norton was raised in Pleasant Grove, where his parents ran a "candy house," selling sweets, pickles and other snacks out of their home. He graduated from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, earned his undergrad degree at Marymount Manhattan College and his master's of liberal studies from SMU. Norton's work has been produced at Soul Rep, Nouveau 47, African American Repertory Theater, TeCo Theatrical Productions and Theatre Three. He received one of the first writing grants from the TACA Donna Wilhelm News Works Fund, was a finalist for the Eugene O'Neill National Playwrights Conference (where new plays are developed) and had his play My Tidy List of Terrors, a coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of the Atlanta child murders, workshopped in 2012 at the prestigious PlayPlenn in Philadelphia.

We talked to Norton over coffee at a shop near the SMU campus and then in email follow-ups. He's fun to talk to. Playwrights are good with their own dialogue, too.

Why are you a playwright? This is often a hard question to answer. It is always easiest to explain why I write now. Basically two reasons: (1) Because a few years ago I couldn't find a way to pretend that I didn't know the deadline for TeCo's New Play Competition in Oak Cliff. I talked, like, every day to [TeCo founder] Teresa Wash, so I submitted a play called 84. It won the literary prize and that got me hooked; and (2) because Vicki Meek at South Dallas Cultural Center gave me actual bill-paying money to write My Tidy List of Terrors. So much of the success I've experienced has been tied in one way or another to that moment.

What was your first produced play? A children's theater piece for Theatre Three. I was 15. It was based on an African folktale called "Anansi the Spider." Theatre Three had a touring group back in the day called Tumbleweed Theatricals, run by the late Larry O'Dwyer. I was in a production of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and Larry was in that, too. I started writing monologues backstage to pass the time, and I forced the actors in the show to act them out. vickie washington [yes, she spells her name that way] is now my director for Mississippi Goddamn, but she still remembers hiding from me in the dressing room. "Oh, God, here he comes with another damn monologue. Hide. Lock the door. Cut off the lights." Larry encouraged me and "commissioned" me to write a play for his group. At 15, I didn't know a thing about African folklore. I never got to see the production. That might have been a good thing.   How many plays have you written? It seems as if you were prolific in 2014? Since high school, I've written nine one-act plays and three full-lengths. This past year I worked on four projects -- Mississippi Goddamn, The 67th Book of the Bible and a dance theater piece with choreographer Michelle Gibson. The fourth play is a crazy take on Shakespeare's The Tempest. I started it in the Dallas Playwrights Workshop at Dallas Theater Center with Will Power. But I've been really busy and haven't had a chance to finish it. I want to get back to it after Mississippi Goddamn closes.   Describe Mississippi Goddamn. If [playwright] Tom Stoppard and [playwright-poet] Amiri Baraka had a baby, Mississippi Goddamn would be that baby.

You were part of that super-secret playwriting workshop with three other local writers led by Will Power last year at Dallas Theater Center. How does Dallas treat its playwrights? And what could Dallas theaters do better to encourage homegrown work? We need more opportunities like the TACA Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund to support the serious development of new work. We need more programs like the Diaspora Performing Arts Commissioning Project. And we need more programs like what Will Power is doing with the Dallas Playwrights Workshop at DTC. We need more stuff like that, and we need a healthy sense of competition and (friendly) rivalry between those programs.

What happens is when anything is the only game in town, or the biggest game in town, then there is no incentive or reason to do certain kinds of things. There is no fear that someone else might beat you to the punch. Sometimes I feel what the Dallas theater community needs is a Goodman/Steppenwolf situation [the Chicago companies are fiercely competitive]. But we're a long way off from that. I think that kind of ecology would really benefit local playwrights. I truly think there is a great desire here to support local writers but I also think there is not a great deal of knowledge about how to most effectively and consistently do that. The real elephant in the room is the question of national visibility. How do we make our shows like [Michael Federico and Home by Hovercraft's musical] On the Eve, Matt Lyle's Barbecue Apocalypse, and Vicki Cheatwood's Ruth a part of the national theater conversation?

Which plays or playwrights inspire you? Anything and everything by Douglas Turner Ward. When I was 15, I read his plays Happy Ending and A Day of Absence, and I've never been the same.

What's your writing method? Any rituals? I've actually had to change my writing process. A few months ago I went from writing in the early mornings to writing after work and in the evenings. Writing in the morning became too painful because I always felt the clock ticking. Just as I got warmed up, I had to stop and get ready for work. And I would carry a certain frustration with me for the rest of the day. Time feels less restrictive in the evening. But after Mississippi Goddamn closes, I will probably go back to mornings. It is easy to rewrite and revise in the evening but coming up with brand new stuff is harder later in the day because my mind is not as fresh.

Anything else you want to expound on? Not really. But I would like to say be sure to go see any and everything featuring Jenny Ledel. She is one of my favorite actresses in town.

100 Creatives: 100. Theater Mastermind Matt Posey 99. Comedy Queen Amanda Austin 98. Deep Ellum Enterpriser Brandon Castillo 97. Humanitarian Artist Willie Baronet 96. Funny Man Paul Varghese 95. Painting Provocateur Art Peña 94. Magic Man Trigg Watson 93. Enigmatic Musician George Quartz 92. Artistic Luminary Joshua King 91. Inventive Director Rene Moreno 90. Color Mavens Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger 89. Literary Lion Thea Temple 88. Movie Maestro Eric Steele 87. Storytelling Dynamo Nicole Stewart 86. Collaborative Artist Ryder Richards 85. Party Planning Print maker Raymond Butler 84. Avant-gardist Publisher Javier Valadez 83. Movie Nerd James Wallace 82. Artistic Tastemakers Elissa & Erin Stafford 81. Pioneering Arts Advocates Mark Lowry & Michael Warner 80. Imaginative Director Jeremy Bartel 79. Behind-the-Scenes Teacher Rachel Hull 78. Kaleidoscopic Artist Taylor "Effin" Cleveland 77. Filmmaker & Environmentalist Michael Cain 76. Music Activist Salim Nourallah 75. Underground Entrepreneur Daniel Yanez 74. Original Talent Celia Eberle 73. Comic Artist Aaron Aryanpur 72. Classical Thespian Raphael Parry 71. Dance Captain Valerie Shelton Tabor 70. Underground Culture Mainstay Karen X. Minzer 69. Effervescent Gallerist Brandy Michele Adams 68. Birthday Party Enthusiast Paige Chenault 67. Community Architect Monica Diodati 66. Intrepid Publisher Will Evans 65. Writerly Wit Noa Gavin 64. Maverick Artist Roberto Munguia 63. Fresh Perspective Kelsey Leigh Ervi 62. Virtuosic Violinist Nathan Olson 61. Open Classical's Dynamic Duo Mark Landson & Patricia Yakesch 60. Rising Talent Michelle Rawlings 59. Adventurous Filmmaker Toby Halbrooks 58. Man of Mystery Edward Ruiz 57. Inquisitive Sculptor Val Curry 56. Offbeat Intellect Thomas Riccio 55. Doers and Makers Shannon Driscoll & Kayli House Cusick 54. Performance Pioneer Katherine Owens 53. Experimental Filmmaker and Video Artist Mike Morris 52. Flowering Fashioner Lucy Dang 51. Insightful Artist Stephen Lapthisophon 50. Dallas Arts District 49. Farmer's Market Localvore Sarah Perry 48. Technological Painter John Pomara 47. Progressive Playmakers Christopher Carlos & Tina Parker 46. Purposive Chef Chad Houser 45. Absorbing Artist Jeff Gibbons 44. Artistic Integrator Erica Felicella 43. Multi-talented Director Tre Garrett 42. Anachronistic Musician Matt Tolentino 41. Emerging Veteran Actor Van Quattro 40. Festival Orchestrator Anna Sophia van Zweden 39. Literary Framer Karen Weiner 38. Man Behind the Music Gavin Mulloy 37. The Godfather of Dallas Art Frank Campagna 36. Rising Star Adam A. Anderson 35. Artist Organizer Heyd Fontenot 34. Music Innovator Stefan Gonzalez 33. Triple Threat Giovanni Valderas 32. Cultural Connector Lauren Cross 31. Critical Artist Thor Johnson 30. Delicate Touch Margaret Meehan 29. Fashion Forward Charles Smith II 28. Dedicated Artist Carolyn Sortor 27. Political Cyber Banksy Wylie H Dallas 26. Dance Preserver Lisa Mesa Rogers 25. Rob 'Ain't No Creative Like A Bow-Tie-Wearing Creative' Shearer 24. Scholar of the Stage Susan Sargeant 23. Photographer of Record Justin Terveen 22. Music Man Jeffrey Liles 21. Keeper of the Safe Room Lauren Gray

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