When audiences pour into the Kalita Humphreys Theater to see Dallas Theater Center’s latest production, they’ll be seated in front of a massive church. Instead of going inside for Sunday mass, the audience will experience a story of love and faith in the confines of a church parking lot. It’s in the unique venue that Dallas Theater Center resident playwright Jonathan Norton sets his latest show, I AM DELIVERED’T, opening Feb. 2.
For Norton, the church parking lot is more than a scene-setter. Much like the play itself, the setting pulls inspiration from his own experiences growing up attending Lord’s Missionary Baptist Church in Dallas.
I AM DELIVERED’T is a comedy centered on Sis, the vice president of usher board No. 1 at the New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church. When an old flame, Sister Breedlove, returns on Good Friday, Sis and her protégé Pickles find themselves entangled in church gossip and romantic predicaments.
“This play was inspired by a few things,” Norton says. “First, my own personal faith journey being a young Black gay man, and growing up in the church.”
The play, done in this co-production with the Actors Theatre of Louisville, pulls inspiration “in so many wonderful ways, positive ways” from that time in Norton’s life. His parents were church ushers, a position he admired growing up.
“When people would get the Holy Ghost or the Holy Spirit, and they start shouting and what have you, the ushers were in charge of helping to take care of them, so it also kind of meant that you really had to be not only physically fit, but not afraid and intimidated by what was happening,” Norton says.
Norton explained he always wanted to write a play that celebrates and examines the “infectious experience” of Black church culture. He chose to embed the story in the usher board to celebrate the often-underrepresented aspect of the culture and experience.
At the same time, Norton also wanted to address the other side of his church experience of “coming to terms with who you are and your sexuality, and occasionally hearing sermons about what the Bible says…and obsessively reading through the Bible for all of these scriptures that apparently say horrible, horrible things about you.”
He wanted to write a play about the Black LGBTQ+ experience that wasn’t “framed or centered in Whiteness in some way,” something he felt was all too often the case in other stories.
“It was kind of, ‘What’s the Blackest place I can put these gay, Black people?’ And the Blackest place I could put them is the Black church. That’s where this story will take place—the Blackest place,” Norton says, laughing.
The decision also led Norton to the church parking lot. He compares the parking lot to the amphitheaters of the classical Greek dramas in being a place where a story can “examine the highs and the lows (of the human experience) in really meaningful and impactful ways.” The parking lot not only metaphorically represents how the characters’ sexuality makes them outsiders in this space, but it also carries a personal, cultural significance.
“Often the joke within Black church community is, ‘meet me outside on the church parking lot,’” Norton says. “The idea that all of the drama happens on the church parking lot, all the settling of scores, all the trash talking.”
Director Robert Barry Fleming says it was a “no-brainer” to join the production, highlighting the opportunity to work with Norton, the Dallas Theater Center, and the cast on the production.
“I have been really excited about exploring this kind of huge set, this edifice that represents so much just by its visual power, and occupying it with characters that seemingly are silenced, erased or really put in a secondary position in most narratives that are associated with that kind of space,” Fleming says.
Norton said he first mentioned the concept for the play to Fleming before he had even written it back in 2019, when the pair worked together in Louisville.
“We’re at rehearsal break one day, and I say, “You know, Robert, one of these days I think I want to write a play about, like, the Black church and usher boards and gay people,” Norton said.
Following a stop at TheatreSquared’s 2023 Arkansas New Play Festival, I AM DELIVERED’T has made its way to the Dallas Theater Center production, which opens Friday.
The play has also become a sort of continuation of Norton’s play, penny candy, which ran at Dallas Theater Center in 2019. Norton said Sis from I AM DELIVERED’T is Rosie, the young crack dealer from penny candy, some 40 years after the events of the play.
“The thing is that at the end of penny candy, the one character I’ve always wondered the most about what happened to them was always Sis. It was always Sis,” Norton said. “Rosie or Sis always stayed with me, so one of the great joys of working on this play was just having the opportunity to return to a character who I love so much.”
Liz Mikel, the actor who previously starred in penny candy and Norton’s 2021 play Cake Ladies, plays Sis in the production.
“Anytime Jonathan writes something, I’m champing at the bit to be a part of it,” Mikel says, noting how she’s “been inspired by his writing for years.”
Mikel described Sis as a “friend to all” who’s a leader in the local church. She views the church as both her family and her refuge.
“I love the many flavors and colors of Sis,” Mikel said. “But the layers come off as we watch the show.”
Mikel referred to her development of the character as an ongoing living process, crediting Norton and Fleming’s guidance during the process.
“One day, Rosie may feel a certain way about something,” Mikel said. “Another day, she may feel a different way, (but) the lines are the same.”
While directing, Fleming said he’s guided by the work of the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley when looking at the impact and importance of directing this play in the current environment.
“What’s it like to be a part of a conversation and stay a part of a conversation without it breaking down into simplistic ways of ‘Can’t we all get along?’ or just completely being polarized and saying, ‘No, I just don’t choose to see your humanity. You are something different than I am,’” Fleming said. “And this work just, I feel like gives us the context to do that in a really specific environment that has its own very specific details, but at the same time is enormously universal.”
Norton hopes I AM DELIVERED’T will help open conversations within churches about the topics addressed by the play, calling them “conversations that need to be had” that theater can help broach.
“What I really hope and want as audiences see and experience this play is to have that feeling of empowerment, to have that feeling of being brave, because they are allowing themselves in this moment watching this play [and] engaging with these characters to do something that previously might have felt taboo or not Christian,” Norton says. “They are actually leaning into that same sense of fearlessness and strength and care and compassion for others. That’s my hope. That’s my prayer for how the play will be received.”
The Dallas Theater Center production of I AM DELIVERED’T in association with Actors Theatre of Louisville runs from Feb. 2-18 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. Learn more here.