2015 Archives

New play focuses on MLK’s famed ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’

'The 67th Book of the Bible' written by Jonathan Norton and produced by Will Power, both of SMU
Debut was Jan. 19 at the Dallas City Performance Hall

Excerpt

The following are from the Jan. 18, 2015, edition of The Dallas Morning News. Jonathan Norton is a playwright and a member of the SMU staff who graduated from the University in 2011. Will Power, an award-winning playwright and performer, is an artist-in-residence in SMU's Meadows School of the Arts. The play, The 67th Book of the Bible, written by Norton and produced by Power, is about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’ which was written in response to a statement by eight white Alabama clergymen in opposition to King and his methods of nonviolent resistance to racism.

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today ...

By JONATHAN NORTON

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would be 86 years old.

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, we would all be at work. And our children would all be at school. And that very important piece of mail you were expecting would arrive today, and not be delayed until Tuesday.

Jonathan Norton
Jonathan Norton

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, there would be no parades or special banquets or elementary school MLK oratory contests.

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, there would be no Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards, streets or avenues. None of that.

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, many white churches would have had absolutely no reason to include Lift Every Voice and Sing in their Sunday services yesterday.

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would demand that we take more urgent notice of the fact that we still live in a world where there are such things as a white church. Or a black church. Or a Latino church. Or an LGBT church.

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would be very proud of Coretta’s support for LGBT equality and would have stood by her side in that struggle.

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would still dream that one day every valley would be exalted, and every hill and mountain made low, the rough places made plain, and the crooked places made straight, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today ...

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today ...

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today ...

And this is where I draw a blank.

Then that blank turns into the painful realization that if MLK were still alive today, he’d be a very different man from the one we remember. Not different bad. Different good. Different in that his ministry of radical racial, social and economic justice would have evolved in ways we can hardly imagine. And I realize how much we lost.

Read the full column.

January 21, 2015

By MELISSA REPKO
Staff Writer

Willie Pearl Mackey knew how to decipher the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s writing. She was used to his sloppy cursive and large vocabulary.

But his notes — smuggled from a Birmingham jail on napkins, toilet paper, newspapers and a greasy paper bag — were nearly impossible to read.

The young secretary scattered the smudged scraps across her desk. She worked with King’s chief of staff, the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, to turn the notes into a cohesive reply to white clergymen who called King’s civil rights demonstrations “unwise and untimely” in a full-page newspaper ad.

King, alone in a jail cell in April 1963, needed Mackey and Walker’s help. . . 

King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is at the center of a play, The 67th Book of the Bible, which will debut Monday at Dallas City Performance Hall. Mackey, 73, will watch from the audience. Walker, 87, of Chester, Va., is sending his daughter in his place.

Will Power
Will Power

The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture commissioned the play for the 10th anniversary of a symposium that honors King.

Albert Black, a Dallas Institute board member, suggested a play about the letter. Of all of King’s letters, speeches and photographs, Black said he is moved most by a photo of King during his eight days in jail. . . 

Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton researched the letter for months. When he found a photo of Mackey and Walker and read about their feverish work, he had his story.

“I just immediately thought to myself ‘There’s a play in there,’” he said.

Norton, an alumnus of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, read academic papers, watched videos and spoke to Mackey and Walker. The play has three characters: Mackey, Walker and A.G. Gaston, a wealthy African-American businessman from Birmingham, who died in 1996.

The title comes from an activist’s suggestion years ago to get the letter recognized as the 67th book of the Bible. Norton said the title fit King’s intent for the letter. He wanted the support of prominent white clergy who did not understand the ferocity and urgency of his fight.

“The letter was really to that part of America,” he said. “It was straight to the unconverted.” . . .

Credits: The play was commissioned by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. It was written by Jonathan Norton and produced by Will Power, both of SMU. Derrick Sanders of Chicago is the director. Cast members are Dallas actors Dennis Raveneau, Kenneisha Thompson and Vontress Mitchell.

Read the full story.

More About the Play


Jonathan Norton interviewed by WFAA


From The Dallas Observer:

Playwright Jonathan Norton, Man of Many Words

By Elaine Liner

Jan. 9 2015

Lots of people write plays. Not many get plays produced and put on a stage for audiences to see. Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton has been getting his plays out of his head, onto the page and onto lots of stages since he was 15.

Now in his late 30s, Norton, whose day job is managing McFarlin Auditorium at SMU, is about to see two of his latest plays come to life. First up is the world premiere of The 67th Book of the Bible, based on real-life events surrounding Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." It's getting a special production at 7 p.m. Monday, January 19, at City Performance Hall, presented by Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture as part of the 2015 MLK Symposium. (Tickets are $10-$20 and available at the door or through the institute.) Will Power, Dallas Theater Center's playwright-in-residence, is producing the performance. Chicago's Derrick Sanders directs a cast featuring Dallas actors Dennis Raveneau, Kenneisha Thompson and Vontress Mitchell.

Then in mid-February, Norton's play Mississippi Goddamn, commissioned by the Diaspora Performing Arts program, opens at the South Dallas Cultural Center (February 19-March 8). This one examines relationships among a group of Mississippi neighbors in the years before the 1963 assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The production stars Tyrees Allen, Stormi Demerson, Calvin Gabriel, Jamal Sterling and Ashley Wilkerson. vickie washington (sic) directs.

Read the full story and the Q&A..