In 2019, Jonathan Norton, the playwright-in-residence at the Dallas Theater Center, was at the esteemed Actors’ Theatre of Louisville working on a short play with executive director Robert Barry Fleming.
“And during a break one day,” Fleming said, Norton mentioned “’I have this idea. I think I want to do a play around usher boards and queer people.’
“And I was like, ‘You have to send me that play!’ In my L.A. brain, I was, like, ‘That’s what they call ‘high concept.’ That is something people will be very intrigued to see how that story plays out.”
The result, “I Am Delivered’T,” is a co-production of the DTC and Actors’ Theatre premiering Feb. 2 in Dallas and opening in Louisville, Ky., in March. Norton’s play concerns the contentious relationship that’s developed between establishment Christian churches — in this case, Black churches — and LGBT church members.
It’s an issue that’s splitting congregations of all races across the country. The United Methodist Church is undergoing what has been called the largest denominational schism in American history over gender and sexual identity issues. For almost two decades, public differences about the recognition of same-sex marriage and the ordaining of women and LGBTQ clergy have caused rifts in the Southern Baptist Convention and the Mennonite Conference, according to the Pew Research Center.
Usher boards are the organizations in a Black church that help the services run smoothly. These are not simply people in suits who show you to your pew.
“An usher board is ushering to the extreme,” Norton said.
Growing up, Norton was on the junior usher board at the Lord’s Missionary Baptist Church in South Dallas, where both his parents were ushers.
“A church might have several usher boards,” Norton said. “The thing I remember is that my parents were on Usher Board Number One, and there was this huge rivalry with Usher Board Number Two. My parents disliked Usher Board Number Two because it was like the ‘young adult’ usher board, the ‘singles’ usher board, and my parents felt they were basically in church to find a man or find a woman or walk around in their little usher suits and look cute. So if things blew up on a Sunday, Usher Board Number One would have to step in.”
“Folks on usher boards,” Norton said, “take ushering very, very seriously.”
It’s a serious business because, in effect, usher boards personify the Black church: They provide dignity, ceremony, security. The ushers present images of authority. They dress sharp.
And they provide first aid, particularly when churchgoers catch the spirit and, in their exuberance, fall or pass out.
Funny and painful
“At a Black church where folks really get the Holy Ghost,” Norton said, ushers make sure these members “are safe, that everyone around them is safe. But at the same time, making sure they don’t stop the spirit.”
Ushers do this using hand signals to communicate in silence so they don’t disrupt the service.
In Norton’s stage comedy, two couples, one gay and one lesbian, struggle to determine what kind of personal relationships they will have going forward. As ushers or just ordinary, devout members of the (fictional) New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church, they also must consider how they fit — or don’t fit — in this congregation.
I Am Delivered’T takes its unusual title from avideo that went viral nine years ago when then-21-year-old Andrew Caldwell of St. Louis publicly declared during a Church of God in Christ Holy Convocation that “I’m not gay no more! I am delivert!” (Caldwell himself spelled it with a T.)
Norton called the video and the online sensation it caused “one of those things that are enormously funny but also really, deeply painful when you sit with it and think about what it means.”
It’s not just that Caldwell defined being a gay male with effeminate cliches (“I will not carry a purse! I will not put on makeup!”). Norton said the video can be painful because “he makes this big speech that he’s no longer gay, and the entire congregation rejoices.”
As director Fleming said, a church is “supposed to be a safe place for me because I’m amongst my own. But what does ‘my own ‘actually mean if people are treating you in a dehumanizing way?”
Using a pair of church ushers as a way into this crisis over sexual and spiritual identity may seem roundabout. But Norton has taken a ‘sideways’ approach to a subject before. His drama, “Mississippi Goddamn,” which premiered in 2015 at the South Dallas Cultural Center, concerned the murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers.
Yet Evers doesn’t appear in the play. Instead, Norton focuses on Evers’ Black neighbors in Jackson, Miss. In reality, they had tried to Evers out because they feared his activities with the NAACP endangered their own homes and families.
A free-fire zone
In I Am Delivered’T, Liz Mikel and Zachary Willis play two ushers – one veteran, one newbie – who are at New Jerusalem ostensibly to help keep order during a Holy Week service. But their disruptive private lives introduce a degree of farcical chaos that includes secret text messages and an Easter basket full of weed.
All of this uproar takes place, not inside the church, but in the church parking lot. That’s where, Norton said, churchgoers often meet informally to chat or to hash things out – away from church authorities.
“The church is sacred, right?” Norton said. “But the parking lot is fair game. That’s where everything goes down, that’s where the scores get settled.”
That parking lot location also has a symbolic significance.
“The play happens outside the church,” he said. “And these gay and lesbian characters, they are outside of the church.”
Norton said he’s never personally felt excluded from a church because he is gay.
“Not exclusion,” he said, “but more like ‘invisibility.’ You’re not being fully seen. And that can be very uncomfortable. I’ve heard it said that the Black church was like the first ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation. And from my own experience, that’s true. Folks can be incredibly accepting of their fellow church members’ different sexual orientation. Yet at the same time, not fully understand or affirm that aspect of who they are.”
Norton currently attends St. Luke Community United Methodist Church. He cited Pastor Emeritus Zan Wesley Holmes Jr. and Senior Pastor Richie Butler for expressly including LGBTQ people in their sermons.
“Their ministry has made a huge impact on me,” he said.
Which is perhaps one reason he designed I Am Delivered’T ultimately as a classic comedy, despite the pain and anger the characters struggle through.
“It was always my intention to lead with joy, not with tragedy or trauma,” Norton said. “The Black church is such an important institution within the African American community because it was the first institution that centered agency and leadership in the lives of Black people. We hadn’t had the opportunity before to really be in control of our destiny and have a space to present the absolute best part of ourselves.”
As with most classic comedies, the chaos and tears in I Am Delivered’T lead to insights and clarity. Norton said all of this is a little like the experience of “catching the spirit.”
- “I Am Delivered’T” opens Feb. 2 at the Dallas Theater Center and continues through Feb. 18.