Playwright Jonathan Norton explores being gay in a Black church with ‘I Am Delivered’T’
RICH LOPEZ | Staff writer
If the title of the play I Am Delivered’T rings a slight bell, think about some of the viral videos that may have crossed your social media paths. That’s where Dallas Theater Center playwright-in-residence Jonathan Norton found the title for his play which made its world premiere in previews last week and opens Friday night, Feb. 9, at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
The show is a co-production with the Actors Theatre of Louisville, and the cast will travel to Kentucky to perform the show next month.
Like the viral video of the young man proclaiming in church he has been “delivered’T” from being gay, Norton’s play has its humor. But a deeper look at what’s at work here can cut to the heart.
“In the video, a Black man named Andrew Caldwell was at, like, a revival service where he declares, ‘I’m not gay no more. I am deliverd’T! I don’t like mens no more; I like womens!’” Norton explained.
That video has been remixed more than once, and there was even a follow-up. And the world of the internet had its way with it.
Norton laughed at first. But after reflecting on it further, he stopped laughing.
I Am Delivered’T world premiere by the Dallas Theater Center with the Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Written by Jonathan Norton
Directed by Robert Barry Fleming
Cast includes Liz Mikel, Zachary J. Willis, E. Faye Butler and Naiqui Macabroad.
Through Feb. 18 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
“That [laughter] was my first response, but later, as a gay man who grew up in the church, there was a lot that was upsetting,” he said. “It always hurts me when gay folks in the church are ambivalent or have issues with their sexuality. To see that video was a reminder of that kind of hurt and trauma that some folks have in the church.”
Norton had his new play, which centers on the Black gay experience in the church, before he had the title. Finding that video gave him the right words, and, Norton said, he reclaimed Caldwell’s words and morphed them into his story for a more affirming meaning.
But it was his own church experience that inspired much of the play.
“I grew up in the church at Lord’s Missionary Baptist Church in South Dallas, and that was known as a ‘sangin’ church. The pastor and his family could all sing their faces off,” Norton said. “The play was inspired by the energy and the spirit of the church.”
As a child in his church, he was beginning to discover his authentic self, but he knew something was up within the church walls. He heard that what he was learning about himself was “bad,” and he searched for answers to his dilemma.
“I was 12 years old, and I was beginning to understand something was different about me,” he said. “I’d be sitting in the back reading all these scriptures to find where it talked about being gay, and nothing in church going on at that moment is about homosexuality. But every so often, maybe a guest pastor or deacon would mention that and back it up with the Bible.”
I Am Delivered’T happens at the church — in its parking lot — with Sis and a fellow usher in the center of church gossip when Sis’ past love — Sister Breedlove — stirs up chatter in the congregation.
Norton wrote it in that setting because it gave him and his characters a certain freedom. “There’s two reasons for that, first being the metaphor of just being outside the church. These two characters already have a feeling of separation from the church itself,” he said.
The second is simply that a lot more is said outside church walls than inside them.
“The parking lot is fair game where all the drama takes place. Sometimes things get said in the lot that cannot be said in the church,” Norton said with a laugh.
Hence the theater’s disclaimer regarding cursing and smoking.
In his own experience, Norton had much respect for the usher board; his parents were part of their church’s board. He said in a Black church, the ushers’ job is far more than putting people in their seats. He explained that the ushers handle folks who might get out of control with the Spirit and also work to maintain the flow of the Spirit happening.
In short, he said, the ushers were badasses.
In the play, one of the character’s queerness comes to the forefront and can’t be ignored. Bringing these two worlds together was important for Norton.
“I really want to bring these slices of life to the stage — especially stories about LGBTQ+ people,” he said. “I did enjoy church, and I think there are many queer people who did but who have these complicated relationships with their church home.”
He described it as “church hurt.”
“I think what’s interesting is, as queer people, we have a certain lens on that conversation that could be helpful to the church in healing wounds. But those conversations have to be welcome,” Norton said.
Perhaps those conversations should start in the parking lot.
For tickets visit DallasTheaterCenter.org.