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Irreverent and touching: Dallas Theater Center premieres Jonathan Norton’s new play

Zachary J. Willis as Pickles, center, flanked by Liz Mikel as Sis, left, and E. Faye Butler as Breedlove in Dallas Theater Center's premiere of playwright-in-residence Jonathan Norton's "I Am Delivered't" at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
Karen Almond
Zachary J. Willis as Pickles, center, flanked by Liz Mikel as Sis, left, and E. Faye Butler as Breedlove in Dallas Theater Center's premiere of playwright-in-residence Jonathan Norton's "I Am Delivered't" at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.

You don’t have to go inside New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church to learn about the people who worship there. All of the action in Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton’s latest homegrown drama, the irreverent and touching I Am Delivered’t, takes place in the church parking lot.

Presented by Dallas Theater Center and Actors Theatre of Louisville, the play premiered this month at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.

When they’re not working out their conflicts and sorrows in a series of mostly one-on-one scenes near the end of a long day of Good Friday services, the four characters dart in and out of New Jerusalem, Norton’s fictionalized version of the south Oak Cliff church he grew up in.

That Sis, Pickles, Breedlove and Effie are gay and everyone at the church knows it is a given. The play is more about self-acceptance rather than trying to find one’s place in an institution that might exclude gay members. Evidently, New Jerusalem is a welcoming if gossipy congregation.

Sis (Liz Mikel) is vice president and Pickles (Zachary J. Willis) is a member of the Usher Board at New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in South Oak Cliff in Dallas Theater Center's premiere of playwright-in-residence Jonathan Norton's "I Am Delivered't at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
Karen Almond
Sis (Liz Mikel) is vice president and Pickles (Zachary J. Willis) is a member of the Usher Board at New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in South Oak Cliff in Dallas Theater Center's premiere of playwright-in-residence Jonathan Norton's "I Am Delivered't at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.

The foul-mouthed Sis (Liz Mikel), whose given name is Rosie, is vice president of the Usher Board, and Pickles (Zachary J. Willis) is a member. They’re in uniform — black suit, yellow vest for her; black suit, yellow tie for him — proudly serving their official church roles.

The action is launched by the piercing screams of Jackie Breedlove (E. Faye Butler), who races out of New Jerusalem possessed by the Holy Ghost. It turns out she and Sis have a past. Her visit, if not her outburst, is unexpected.

Formerly estranged, Breedlove (E. Faye Butler), left, and Sis (Liz Mikel) share a reconciliatory moment in the parking lot of New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Jonathan Norton's "I Am Delivered't," premiering in a production by Dallas Theater Center.
Karen Almond
Formerly estranged, Breedlove (E. Faye Butler), left, and Sis (Liz Mikel) share a reconciliatory moment in the parking lot of New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Jonathan Norton's "I Am Delivered't," premiering in a production by Dallas Theater Center.

Meanwhile, Pickles and Effie (Naiqui Macabroad), who shows up late to the services, as is his style, are fighting over a man in attendance.

Seen in a preview performance Wednesday night, the acting under director Robert Barry Fleming was as naturalistic as it gets, aided by Norton’s gift for real-sounding dialogue.

Peppered with the mundane details of their lives, the establishment of the characters as flesh-and-blood people is immediate in his hands even when they get theatrical or crack wise.

“Dredging up old s--- was not on my agenda today,” Sis says. Later, she observes that Breedlove’s holy-rolling “sounds like a backward orgasm.”

Effie (Naiqui Macabroad) and Sis (Liz Mikel) pray and sing in a church parking lot in a scene from Jonathan Norton's "I Am Delivered't" at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
Karen Almond
Effie (Naiqui Macabroad) and Sis (Liz Mikel) pray and sing in a church parking lot in a scene from Jonathan Norton's "I Am Delivered't" at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.

Beyond all the cursing by Sis and the others in the parking lot, they engage in and disclose other behavior, from the illegal to what could be considered immoral, especially outside a church.

It’s refreshing to see them as their own worst enemies instead of victims of outside forces, as just regular folks with problems. They sing, quote Scripture and eat spiked gummies. (Pickles will be particularly funny to frequent theatergoers with his out-of-context line from a murderous classic musical.)

Though Breedlove is still somewhat in the closet — if only to herself — the fact that Norton’s characters are gay is almost beside the point. As he did with earlier Dallas-set plays like Penny Candy, Norton has again found the universal in the specific.

Details

Through Feb. 18 at Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. $10-$125. dallastheatercenter.org.

Sis (Liz Mikel) and Breedlove (E. Faye Butler) share a poignant moment in Dallas Theater Center's premiere of playwright-in-residence Jonathan Norton's "I Am Delivered't."
Karen Almond
Sis (Liz Mikel) and Breedlove (E. Faye Butler) share a poignant moment in Dallas Theater Center's premiere of playwright-in-residence Jonathan Norton's "I Am Delivered't."

Arts Access is an arts journalism collaboration powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The University of Texas at Dallas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Manuel Mendoza is a freelance writer and a former staff critic at The Dallas Morning News.