Someone recently asked me what I think the future of Black theater is considering that there is so much “bad Black theater” out there and no new August Wilson on the horizon to save us from this dismal situation. Well, granted the status of Black theater seems pretty bleak if you look at what travels around the urban stages. But from where I’m sitting, I actually have a lot of hope for the survival of the kind of Black theater August spoke about. In April, 2000, in The New York Times, he addressed the need to have such a niche:
“The culture of black America, forged in the cotton fields of the South and tested by the hard pavements of the industrial North, has been the ladder by which we have climbed into the New World. The field of manners and rituals of social intercourse—the music, speech, rhythms, eating habits, religious beliefs, gestures, notions of common sense, attitudes toward sex, concepts of beauty and justice, and the responses to pleasure and pain—have enabled us to survive the loss of our political will and the disruption of our history. The culture’s moral codes and sanction of conduct offer clear instructions as to the value of community, and make clear that the preservation and promotion, the propagation and rehearsal of the value of one’s ancestors is the surest way to a full and productive life”.
This observation was made by Wilson upon starting his final two plays in his cycle of plays that have since become American classics. This is the stuff most theater enthusiasts are looking for when they search the American stages for “good Black theater”. This is the kind of committed writing I seek to support with the South Dallas Cultural Center’s Diaspora Performing Arts Commissioning Program.
For over 10 years, South Dallas Cultural Center has been working with young Black playwrights and performance artists in Dallas to support the creation of original works that speak substantively and profoundly to the Black experience. One such writer will see his work fully staged this coming January after having his play, My Tidy List of Terrors, workshopped over the last 18 months.
Jonathan Norton is a promising and inspiring light on the theatrical horizon, someone well worth watching in the coming years. My Tidy List of Terrors has already gotten critical notice this year, having gained Semi-Finalist status for acceptance in the Eugene O’Neill Playwriting Conference in Connecticut and an invitation to receive a professional reading and further critique as a part of the Texas Black and Latino Playwrights Conference at Texas State University. A coming of age drama set within the backdrop of The Atlanta Child Murders, My Tidy List of Terrors originated from an idea Jonathan had to write a play inspired by the art of the renowned Saar women, Betye, Alison and Lezley. Their exploration of memory, ancestors and family history served as the foundation upon which Jonathan began to build his tale of an horrific event in the history of Black America that is still today, an unsolved mystery.
What impresses me so much about this new work is how carefully crafted the dialogue is and the meticulous development of the characters. Prior to this work, Jonathan wrote a number of very funny satires and became known for being able to insert real comic bite into any situation being addressed. His initial intention was to examine this tragic episode in Atlanta’s modern history using his tried and true methodology but with some strong encouragement from me, he quickly abandoned this notion and began to really dig deeply into the facts of this case.
I am so proud of Jonathan for having the artistic courage to step outside of his comfort zone to embrace the seriousness of this tragedy and to flesh out the characters he puts on the stage so as not to create easy streotypes of the “ghetto dweller” or the “bougie socialite”! Instead he delves into issues of humanity and how easily it can be compromised when fear and ignorance drive one’s actions. He makes us look at the complexity of human relationships and how easy it is to assume rather than to confirm. What Jonathan has done with My Tidy List of Terrors is weave a very poignant story of fear, suspicion, loss and ultimately salvation while forcing us to revisit with new eyes an almost forgotten slice of history. My Tidy List of Terrors brings a stellar cast to the South Dallas Cultural Center stage, all local, all worth keeping on your radar screen if you’re searching for “good Black theater”. But most of all, Jonathan Norton is a playwright who absolutely should be on your “must see” list whenever you see his work being presented!
My Tidy List of Terrors begins showing at the South Dallas Cultural Center on January 20. For details, click here.