Dallas Theater Center resident playwright Jonathan Norton grew up going to the Lord’s Missionary Baptist Church in South Dallas, and there he became fascinated with Usher Board culture. In his new comedy, I Am Delivered’t, Norton draws on that experience as he takes a funny yet moving look at four queer, Black congregants who face the challenges of belonging to a church that doesn’t fully accept them even as they learn that you’re never really accepted anywhere if you don’t accept yourself.
TheaterMania recently spoke with Norton about Usher Board culture, what inspired his new play and how it ties in with his previous work, and what challenges theater makers face in attracting broader, more diverse audiences.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
When I saw the title of the play, my first thought was of Andrew Caldwell and his viral video about having been delivered from homosexuality, but that’s not what your play is about. What inspired you to write it?
For so long I’ve wanted to figure out a way to write a play that explores what it means to be Black and queer in the Black church, but I struggled to find my way into that. The stories that we often hear are usually related to the church choir or the church music director. I just wanted to find my own way inside of that conversation, and then I remembered the church that I grew up at in South Dallas. Both my parents were ushers, and Usher Board culture was something that’s always fascinated me. They have to make themselves available to come in direct contact with the Holy Spirit, like — you see it in the play — when someone gets the Holy Ghost and they’re shouting, the usher has to keep that person safe and make sure they’re OK while they’re going through this. So centering this story on a group of ushers — I was like, “Oh, that’s it!”
So church ushers do way more than just seat people. What comes with being a member of an Usher Board?
Ushers have to have three qualities: They have to be physically fit enough to help care for people who are in the Spirit. They also have to be spiritually in tune enough to keep the person safe and keep everyone around them safe, but let the Spirit do what it wants to do; but you don’t want to stop it. And then you have to be willing to come in direct contact with the Spirit, and that can be something difficult for a lot of people; you have to have a certain type of spiritual connection with yourself. What I find interesting about that is that oftentimes in the church, people feel those are qualities that queer people don’t possess — that we’re weak, that we do not understand God, that the Holy Spirit is repelled by us.
That sense of exclusion kind of fits in with why the play is set in the church’s parking lot, right?
The original idea was that it would be set in another room of the church. Then I remembered that when I was growing up in the church, most often people would just be taken outside. And I thought, “Yeah, the parking lot,” and that made me think of two things: It’s another metaphor for the fact that the characters are in some way outsiders; and then also the running joke in the Black community — but it’s also kind of true — is that all the shit goes down in the church parking lot. [laughs] So it’s a place where you could have a lot of fun but also allow characters a certain freedom and not be confined so much by the fact that — they’re on holy ground but they’re not on holy ground. And also, it’s Texas, so it’s car culture. Anything goes in the parking lot. [laughs]
The usher Sis has a pivotal role in this play. Is she a special character to you?
Sis appears in an earlier play called penny candy, which takes place in the late ’80s, and she was a young crack dealer called Rosie. I always wanted to know what happened to her after that play. She was based on someone I knew growing up, a woman close to my family who also sold crack. For me, I Am Delivered’t is the follow-up, and I wanted her story to not have a tragic ending.
What are you hoping audiences take away from the play?
What’s exciting for me as a theater maker is when a piece of art can speak to and engage the absolute broadest audience and still keep its integrity. What I hope people will come away with is this idea that to really love and care for someone who might be in need, you may have to get out of your comfort zone. We see that in different ways in the interactions between Sis, Breedlove, Pickles, and Effie, with folks having to let go of something — a fear, a preconceived notion, some grudge, or a rivalry — to be there for someone else. That idea is what’s important to me.
You mentioned engaging broader audiences. Do you see challenges in attracting diverse communities to the theater?
There’s a story that I have from when I was working on penny candy. I went with the director, Derrick Sanders, to the apartment complex where my parents lived. We were talking to the lady in the front office, and we asked her if she would like free tickets to come see the play. When she said she didn’t go to the theater, I asked her why, expecting an answer like, “It’s boring” or “It’s too expensive.” Her answer was, “I don’t have enough vacation time.” It made us think either that in her mind theater exists in other places like New York and that you have to travel to see it, or that she genuinely works two or three jobs and literally doesn’t have time. As theater artists who are trying to engage with diverse communities, we have to realize this other set of challenges that we have to figure out how to navigate, and ask what is the thing we do — what is it that we have to do — to make our work essential to them.