National Honors

Dallas writer commands national attention for civil rights play — and gets it

Dallas writer commands national award for revelatory civil rights play

Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton
Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton Photo by Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Tyrees Allen and Calvin Gabriel in Mississippi Goddamn
Tyrees Allen and Calvin Gabriel in South Dallas Cultural Center's production of Mississippi Goddamn. Photo courtesy of South Dallas Cultural Center
South Dallas Cultural Center presents Mississippi Goddamn
Another scene from the SDCC's Mississippi Goddamn. Photo by Classi Nance Jimoh
Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton
Tyrees Allen and Calvin Gabriel in Mississippi Goddamn
South Dallas Cultural Center presents Mississippi Goddamn

Dallas' own Jonathan Norton is taking home this year's M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award for an emerging playwright. The annual honor is determined and given out by the American Theatre Critics Association (of which this author is a member), and it comes with a $1,000 prize. 

The winning play is Mississippi Goddamn, which premiered at the South Dallas Cultural Center in February 2015. We named it one of the best theatrical experiences of that year, and ATCA members agreed, though on a national scale.

Vicki Washington directed the premiere, which CultureMap called "an ambitious time-twister that blends history with speculation" about the family who lives next door to civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

"He may have used Nina Simone's song as his title, but the play's content isn't borrowed at all," says one of the ATCA Osborn panelists. The "fast-moving, dramatic, and revelatory" play with a "truly explosive, molten core" contains "nothing PC or sentimental." It has "a raw quality that actually benefits the tense 'desperate hours' scenario of neighbors and families divided by the insidious pressures of racism."

Another panelist added, "Venal haters and courageous civil rights leaders have been the subjects of many a film and play, but this piece tackles the less dramatized and understood reality of those caught in the crossfire."

Norton is one of the inaugural members of the Dallas Playwrights Workshop, and he has had plays developed or produced by PlayPenn, the Black and Latino Playwrights Conference, TeCo Theatrical Productions, African-American Repertory Theater, and more. He's currently working on a commissioned play from Dallas Theater Center, with the goal of future development and eventually production.

ATCA's Osborn Award is designed to recognize the work of an author who has not yet achieved national stature. The award was established in 1993 to honor the memory of Theatre Communications Group and American Theatre play editor M. Elizabeth Osborn. 

Norton will be receive the award at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 9.