Jonathon Norton: Living (and writing) between 2 worlds
When Jonathon Norton was 15 years old, acting in his high school production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, to escape the boredom of the green room, he would wile away his down time writing monologues and short scenes for his castmates to act out for him. What began as their indulgence of his quirkiness quickly turned to annoyance. “They were like, ‘Here he comes, here he comes with papers in his hands — hide, lock the door, turn off the lights!’” he recalls with a laugh.
Now, actors are seeking him out.
Norton is an emerging playwright, who has already met a degree of success; he recently wrapped up a sold-out three week-run of his newest play, Mississippi Goddamn, at the South Dallas Cultural Center. Norton both wrote and produced the production — a dual set of duties he enjoyed, as it permitted him greater control of the finished product and kept him occupied and focused during rehearsals … normally a stressful time for playwrights.
The story centers on the neighbors of the ’60s civil rights activists Medgar and Myrlie Evers, whose collective attempts to buy the couple out of their home in Jackson, Miss. Norton was inspired when he visited the Evers residence during a civil rights pilgrimage while enrolled at SMU.
“During our visit, the tour guide explained that on several occasions Evers’ neighbors tried to buy him out of the neighborhood,” Norton says. “This was a man fighting for justice for the African-American community, and yet his [black] neighbors did not want him there. They had some valid reasons in terms of being afraid for their children’s safety and their livelihoods, but still — it’s kind of shocking to imagine his neighbors not wanting him there.”
Likening the situation to a gay activist facing alienation and anger from his own gay neighbors, Norton addresses themes within the work that prove relevant in the face of the gay rights movement.
“I think because there is a theme within the play of speaking truth to power and not being afraid to do that, there is the conflict of Robbie [the main character] with her parents as they have this do not rock the boat mentality that still exists even within the gay community,” Norton says.
Mississippi Goddamn garnered enough attention that following its recent run, a table reading was scheduled in New York City, and he has been approached by some institutions of higher learning about performing it, as it provides intense, challenging rolls for young African-American actors. Norton was also asked by the Dallas Morning News to write an op-ed piece on MLK Day entitled “If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today….” In the piece, Norton wrote that if King were alive he would be proud of and support Coretta’s work on LGBT equality. After the editorial ran, he received hate mail accusing him of putting words in King’s mouth but he doesn’t let that bother him — he got letters of support, as well.
As an out man himself, Norton feels the tension of both the black and LGBT communities and his role in creating works that reflect the scope of that experience. But making it work isn’t always easy.
“Many of the African-American playwrights that are successful and established … 95 percent of them are gay,” he laughs. “It is common knowledge to the extent that a very close friend of mine jokes about the fact if you’re gay, African-American and have a talent for writing, that’s all it takes. You got it.” But there is also an expectation that LGBT writers should create a play with gay characters — a pressure he has experienced, and even though he has ideas cooking, he hasn’t found a way to do that effectively … of yet.
“I’ve had a number of plays that I have started at one stage or another with gay characters in it and for some reason, I get to a point where I get blocked. I think it has to do with wondering if the work is becoming stereotypical or too safe or middle-of-the-road,” he says. “I get to page 15 and I think the other piece of it is that I’m always interested in race and sexuality and how those things work together.”
His previous play, My Tidy List of Terrors, was selected by the prestigious PlayPenn Conference, an annual event in Philadelphia that chooses talented works from across the nation for workshopping, readings and other development opportunities.
He’s not making a living yet as a writer. Norton’s day job is as a coordinator in campus services at SMU’s McFarlin Auditorium, and he is a commons producer for the online theater journal HowlRound, for which he covers the residency of Will Powers (the straight exception to the gay black writer rule) at the Dallas Theater Center. He raises awareness about the plights of playwrights and playwright residency support programs. This position also gives him the unique opportunity to learn from Powers, an established veteran playwright.
“Prior to Will coming to Dallas, I didn’t really have other playwrights at that kind of level [having work produced regionally and on Broadway] that I can pick his brain and talk to him about the business and how it operates,” Norton says. “So many writers didn’t have access to someone like him at all. There is a lot of knowledge that doesn’t get transferred so it’s been great having someone in the community that can provide that.”
But Norton isn’t all serious race plays and heady theater aspirations — he also is a superfan of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. (His pick this season to win is fellow Booker T. Washington alum Kennedy Davenport.)
“I love those moments on the show when the contestants talk about their parents, and the difficulty they’ve had within their families,” Norton says. “That is one of the great things about Untucked that I miss — when someone would get a surprise call from their dad who they hadn’t talked to in 15 years. The show has this huge straight following, so for straight America to see these kind of moments is an extremely powerful thing and it allows them see this warrior nature to the contestants.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 15, 2015.