The cast of “Mississippi Goddamn” at South Dallas Cultural Center. Front: Calvin Gabriel, Stormi Demerson; Rear (left): Whitney LaTrice Coulter, Ashley Wilkerson, Stormi Demerson. Photo: Jonathan Norton.
A few years ago, Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton visited Medgar Evers’ house. He thought about where Byron De La Beckwith must have stood when he assassinated the civil rights advocate in his own driveway in 1963. But it was the neighbors staring at Norton’s tour group who really captured his imagination. He tells Art&Seek’s Anne Bothwell how that trip led to a new play, called Mississippi Goddamn, premiering now at the South Dallas Cultural Center.
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How’d you get the idea for the play?
In 2011, I took a trip with my civil rights class at Southern Methodist University and we visited the home of Medgar and Myrlie Evers and our tour guide at their home explained that many of his neighbors tried to buy him out.
And he was living in a black neighborhood?
He was living in a black neighborhood. And on four or five occasions, they tried to buy him out. He turned down every offer and immediately, I thought to myself, I think there’s a play in there somewhere. Because it’s just one of those things you never consider.
It’s actually a very disturbing story but also there seemed like a unique way to enter into a conversation about the movement.
What was the objection to Evers?
First, there was the fear of violence from the white community. But the other part of it was his neighbors being threatened by their employers to do anything and everything in their power to really push Medgar Evers and his family not just off the street, but in many ways, out of Jackson.
Are the characters in the play based on real people?
It’s me imagining what it must have been like to be a neighbor and imagining this one particular family that might have lived down the street from him. But you know the other piece of it is our tour guide explained to us that after his assassination, his neighbors made a pact to not speak of his assassination for the next 10 years.
And for 10 years, no one ever spoke a word about Medgar Evers assasination in the neighborhood. It’s just one of those thing you just keep pushing for answers.
You’ve had several productions on stage in the last few years. The 67th Book of the Bilbe was recently produced at the City Performance Hall. The play Homeschool was premiered at the African American Repertory Theater. How are you juggling all this?
It’s a challenge. I have an amazing support group. I work a full time 9-5. But for the most part I kind of live for the work, so it’s enjoyable to me. So somethings people would do, like, it’s the weekend, I’m going to go out shopping or catch up on Netflix….. I don’t. I almost kind of don’t have a life.
We hear a lot more about actors and theater companies in North Texas, than we do about playwrights. Is there a big playwrighting scene here?
I would say there are a lot of talented writers here, but in terms of an actual scene, probably not. Only because we do not have, at the moment, I don’t think there are any programs or organizations that are specifically designed for or developed with playwrights in mind. I think the challenge with playwrights is that with every other artist in the theater, from actors to directors to designers, theater companies need these artists. You can’t do a play without actors and you need someone to direct it. You can not necessarily bring this talent in from New York if you’re a small theater company or a mid-size theater company.
But certainly, you can decide to produce the next whatever play is hot in New York. It’s not a difficult thing to do that. So in terms of actually cultivating playwrighting talent here, there’s not always a huge emphasis on that, simply because it’s not an essential part of the process.
So what’s the biggest hurdle? Is it writing, is it finding a theater company to put on your production, is it funding the project?
I think that in Dallas, we have enough small theater companies and artists who are willing to pull up there sleeves and get something done and if they find a piece that they love, to make it happen. The idea of just getting it produced being the biggest hurdle, I don’t necessarily feel that’s really true. But I do feel that what’s true is being able to create work that can have a future beyond Dallas [is challenging.] One of the hurdles is trying to get a second life for your play, further production opportunities.
When did you say, this is it, I’m going to be a playwright? It sounds embarrassing to say, but it almost feel like I make that decision every day. Because it’s actually a difficult thing to do. Really, honestly the reason I’m writing now, is because Vicki Meek, at the South Dallas Cultural Center, in 2010, offered me one of the Diaspora Performing Arts [grants] to work on a play that I started when I was studying with her at SMU.
She said,’I really want you to continue this play, but the only way I can make sure that you continue working on this is to give you money.’ And my jaw kind of dropped. I thought to myself, she’s really going to give me money to write a play?! And she did, in fact, do that. I think it was that vote of confidence, in that way, that really pushed me, pushed me.