Dallas-based playwright Jonathan Norton sits down with vickie washington, the director of his new play, Mississippi Goddamn to discuss the challenges of black bodies and voices confronting white Supremacy onstage.
Jonathan: This might sound overly simplistic but it is just a way to get the conversation started. Looking at your bio in the playbill it says “her work in the theater is driven by her love of the craft and the significant way it can be utilized to tell the powerful and potent stories of African people throughout the Diaspora.” Can you begin the process of unpacking that a little bit? Specifically as it relates to Mississippi Goddamn?
vickie: When I went to see Fences on Broadway with Denzel Washington, when we stood outside the theatre prior to the show and there were Negro people lined up for a city block and a half waiting to go in and see it. I was reminded of how desperate we are to see ourselves reflected, to see out stories told and to be a part of that –
Jonathan: And to see Denzel Washington.
vickie: That too. So as it relates to when I am in the process of making theatre or going to see theater that is a part of my lived experience in some way or is reflective of my culture, and my heritage, and my people – I just know how affirming that is – like looking in a mirror – even if it’s just a glance. But it is important. So this whole thing of Mississippi Goddamn, when you called and asked if I would come to the Scriptworks reading – and you said you had written this play – and you gave me the name of it – I was so excited. I had no idea what the play was about. But the title was enough. And then when I began to read the play and the story of this man and his wife, Medgar and Myrlie, that in some ways has been forgotten, then this other story that has not been forgotten but was simply not known. I’m sure that there is a huge swath of the world that never thought about the fact that there were people in Mississippi, who were Black, who were trying to get Medgar and Myrlie Evers to move off the street. And that there were Black people who were part of this governmental spy unit in Mississippi. To be a part of unearthing that story in some way is gratifying.
And there is a truth about the story that is very powerful. And I thought about this today, the song says, “Alabama got me so upset,” and now a lot of people that did not know about Alabama 1963 now know because of the movie Selma. Now they know. Then the song goes on to say, “Tennessee made me lose my rest. But everybody knows about Mississippi.” But everybody didn’t know but this play in Dallas, people will begin to know something in a way they had not known before. So the beauty and the power of us telling our story is not just making sure that the stories get told but the lens through which the story is shown or the pen that writes the story is very important.
Jonathan: Speaking of unearthing, there is so much that comes to the surface when you start that process. And much of that we’ve been struggling to process as a company. Sometimes it feels as if we each have our own individual walls that we’ve built. It’s funny in a way – how often do we hear the complaint that all we talk about is race, race, race. But we have nine African-American artists in a room and our discussions about race are always labored. It never comes easy and it doesn’t come up very often, unless you initiate the conversation.
vickie: I know. You remember at the table read I said everyone at that table is old enough to have had some experiences with the system of White supremacy, that was not pleasant, that goes the full spectrum.
Jonathan: When you mention that now what I remember from that moment was that none of us responded. Nobody really had a huge response to that.
vickie: It’s too painful and most people have not even begun to confront those stories. I think that many of us haven’t spoken those stories. Haven’t told them. Because we don’t even know how we feel about them. We don’t know if we should be at fault. We don’t know if we were just pussies and didn’t know how to deal with it. Or we just faked the funk for so long. Or that whole exceptional Negro thing. We don’t want anyone to know that’s us. So what I know for sure is that the degree to which each actor on that stage is willing to lean in and unpack and connect, it will make the work that much richer. And that’s what the work of being an actor is. And I think that for many black actors that we so seldom get our hands on a play that really cuts to where Mississippi Goddamn cuts to. And when we do get it we are directed by either a white person, and it’s not fair to a white person because there are white directors who will help you go there. But we are directed oftentimes by people who just keep skirting shit. Out of their ignorance, or out of their pain, or out of their unwillingness to delve into their shit and connect. And so consequently you get stuff that is good but it not necessarily as deep as it truly could be. And I find that kind of sad because to me – and it goes back to the statement you read earlier – one of the joys of theater is that it is really supposed to be like good church. Whatever kind of church you do that you enjoy and is powerful – is what theater is supposed to be.
Jonathan: Can I ask you to imagine that we were in rehearsal for this play two years ago. And my question is would this conversation about the difficulty for African American actors to lean into the pain be different two years ago?
vickie: Do you mean like Trayvon?
Jonathan: Yes like Mike Brown, Eric Garner. How is that playing on the work? How is that weighing on what we do now? And how does that weigh on what we are bringing in and on what the actors are bringing, or struggling to bring in?
vickie: I think maybe it is not weighing enough and that is something that I need to dig and make happen. But my gut reaction is that it doesn’t matter. 2013 vs 2015 because do you recall the conversation you and I had about removing the phrase “I can’t breathe” from the play after the murder of Eric Garner, and I said forget that, black people haven’t been able to breathe since we got here. And so the fact is that if it’s set in – 1863, 1963, 2003, 2013 – the unfortunate realities remain with us. That being said, I remember the moment that I heard the verdict in the Zimmerman trial and I had opened my computer because I knew they were getting ready to give the verdict and I was ready to post on Facebook. And when the verdict came all I could type was mutherfucker. And I literally felt like I had been punched in the stomach. Like somebody spit on me. So there is an insidiousness. Nothing is new. And I do think that in the times we live now – it seems like in the last 35 years now since Reagan was elected – it does seem like there has been a steady backlash and we – people who claim to be believers of freedom and justice – have not been attentive enough. I keep hearing that Nina Simone song “Jim Crow, oh where ya been, baby?” He’s back. Bigger and badder than ever.
Jonathan: I would like to try and close out by having a discussion about police brutality. It is interesting to me how it unfolds in Mississippi Goddamn. In my play it is police brutality but it is police brutality within the context of Jim Crow, Mississippi 1963. As opposed to how we view police brutality today. But what I think tends to happen is we separate police brutality today from Jim Crow and then we realize that there is really no separation. It is still the same Jim Crow police brutality idea.
vickie: It is state sanctioned. Whether it’s the mall cop or George Zimmerman, it is all state sanctioned. And I think in the play you have very clearly summed it up by Claudette’s line, “the police, the white citizen’s council, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. It doesn’t matter. It’s all the same thing.”
Jonathan: “Pick your poison.”
vickie: Right. It’s the mindset that says that person in that Black skin does not matter. That he or she is really not worth it. In Mississippi Goddamn you’re dealing with terror. You get this idea that there is this brutality that at any time can be visited upon you. Probably the only time that we hear it in the play that is associated with police and law enforcement is the sheriff’s officers that come into Mr. Chuck’s café. And the understanding that you don’t own nothing. This ain’t your café. We can bring a dog in here. You don’t allow no animals? They didn’t even listen to you. They destroyed my whole morning business. They sat there with that dog. Then they started asking me where my wife was. They were interrogating him.
Jonathan: But even more-so when you think about Robbie and the bucket of drinking water in jail and the young girls – these teenage girls – these fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen year old girls. Terrorized. And assaulted.
vickie: And terrorized for life. It stays with them for life. And within the circumstances in the play, you have to remember what the police were initially designed for. They weren’t designed to serve and protect black people. They were designed to serve and protect white people from black people. Here’s a story, when my granddaughter started school, she started school at Charles Rice, right there in the hood. By spring semester of her Pre-K year – she’s four – everyday she’s talking about the cops. “Oh, they gonna pick you up. They gonna put you in jail. They gonna kill you.” And I’m like, wait a minute!
Jonathan: Where is this coming from?
vickie: Right, so then it is a struggle of – this is a baby and I want her to feel free. And it’s not that she thinks they’re bad. It’s just that she thinks they’re coming to get you. So what do I do to empower her to live as fully and as boldly as she wants to but at the same time to let her know, yeah those people over there they really will chop you off at the knees. That’s what our parents told us.
So let me ask you a question. You had that aha moment on the driveway of the Evers’ house and the play came out of that. Then Trayvon happened. Then names on top of names and some of those are female names too. Is there a thought that connects those for you?
Jonathan: The continuum between then and now?
vickie: Yes, I wanted to ask you if that gets spoken to in Mississippi Goddamn.
Jonathan: Yes, it does get spoken to but most times it’s in some kind of unconscious way. And what’s been happening to me lately is that a line or a moment will hit me and I will understand the significance behind it that I had never considered before but it’s right there on the page. And I wrote it. And it’s so clear. And so obvious. And for whatever reason being it never hit me in the moment that I wrote it. And I think it is that thing of something being so painful that you can’t address it head on. However, in the back of your mind you’re making those connections and putting in on the paper. In the initial moments you’re kind of oblivious to it. You’re working through something but you don’t even know you’re working through it at the time.
vickie: Well keep on working through. On and Up!
Jonathan: On and Up!
Mississippi Goddamn will receive its world premiere at the South Dallas Cultural Center. The play was commissioned by the Diaspora Performing Arts Commissioning Program, a project of the South Dallas Cultural Center.
Cast of Mississippi Goddamn (clockwise): Ashley Wilkerson, Stormi Demerson, Calvin Gabriel and Whitney LaTrice Coulter, Photo Credit: Jonathan Norton
Jonathan Norton (Playwright) Jonathan’s plays have been produced or developed by PlayPenn, The Black and Latino Playwrights Conference, South Dallas Cultural Center, TeCo Theatrical Productions, African American Repertory Theater, The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, Nouveau 47, CrossOver Arts Theater and Soul Rep. Jonathan is a proud two-time recipient of the Diaspora Performing Arts Commission from the South Dallas Cultural Center, the TACA Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund and an Artistic Innovations Grant from the Mid-America Arts Alliance. He is an inaugural member of the Dallas Playwrights Workshop at the Dallas Theater Center led by Will Power. He is a proud graduate of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Marymount Manhattan College and SMU.
vickie washington (Director) is the founder and producing director of r . t . w ~ reading the writers, a readers theatre performance organization. Directing credits: Fences, Speech and Debate, The Ballad of Jane Elkins, Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963, Fabulation, Angela’s Mixtape, First Breeze of Summer and The Gambler’s Earrings. vickie has performed in countless plays, including Crowns (DTC), The Piano Lesson(Theatre Three), Zooman and the Sign (Afro-American Artists), …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi (DTC), The Tempest (Dallas Shakespeare), A Lesson Before Dying (Jubilee), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone(Theatre Three), and Home (Afro-American Artists). She received Best Actress recognition from the Dallas Critics Forum for her performance in From the Mississippi Delta (Soul Rep Theatre) which also garnered her nomination for the coveted Rabin Award presented by the Dallas Theatre League. A proud member of Actors’ Equity Association, her work in theatre is driven by her love of the craft and the significant way in which it can be utilized to tell the powerful and potent stories of African people throughout the Diaspora.