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‘Groupthink’ in the Black church can be larger problem than homophobia for LGBTQ, playwright says

By G. McAdams | Arts Angle Vantage Reporter

J. Graham Brown School, Class of 2024


Standing in the New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church parking lot, a queer usher, a gay outcast in silver glittery eyeshadow, and a mother questioning her sexuality pray and are overtaken by the Holy Spirit. Outside of the church walls, muffled sounds of an ongoing service echo from within the sanctuary. The onstage energy is contagious as the prayer starts solemnly, grows to a crux and parishioner Jackie Breedlove cries “I am Delivered” into the audience.

 

This is “I Am Delivered’T,” a new play that ran at Actors Theatre of Louisville from March 14 through 24. It followed four queer Black churchgoers outside their church's Good Friday service.


Liz Mikel, E. Faye Butler and Naiqui Macabroad in “I Am Delivered'T” at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Denisha McCauley and Actors Theatre of Louisville.


The play by award-winning Jonathan Norton made its world premiere at the Dallas Theater Center where Norton is the resident playwright and then moved to Louisville. Actors Theatre’s Artistic and Executive Director Robert Berry Fleming directed the play in both venues. In 2016, Norton’s play “Mississippi Goddamn” won the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award for new playwrights.

 

All four characters in Norton’s “I Am Delivered’T” share a lifelong history at New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church. Two, Effie (Naiqui Macabroad) and Mrs. Breedlove (E. Faye Butler), have recently been missing from service. On the other hand, Ivan Pickles (Zachary J. Willis) and Sis (Liz Mikel) are dedicated ushers and are loyal attendees.

 

The characters go through everyday struggles, and some that are deep-rooted: jealousy over an ex-lover, grief for a loved one, estranged family, and having to eat cold catfish and spaghetti. The story shows how their queer identities hinder inclusion in church culture. Even Sis, a dedicated member, shows her hesitancy.

 

“I stepped on the floor wearing armor,” Sis said.

 

At a talkback after this Louisville premiere, Norton spoke about his writing process with “I Am Delivered’T,” his experience of church culture, and how groupthink can undermine connection.

 

Norton said events in the play reflect what he’s seen and experienced. He related them to a conversation he had with a Texas pastor who nominally accepted queer people. He and the cast had visited the church to discuss the play with the congregation. The pastor asked him to censor his introduction of Willis, the actor who played Pickles.

 

“Before we visited, I sent the text of just what I would say, like what my introduction would be for Zach,” Norton says, “and she goes, ‘oh, this is great, but can you just remove the part about the same gender loving couple?’"

 

The pastor wanted to be the one to raise the topic of sexuality with the congregation.


Zachary J. Willis, E. Faye Butler and Naiqui Macabroad in “I Am Delivered'T” at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Denisha McCauley and Actors Theatre of Louisville.


While these kinds of conversations can be difficult in church settings where stigmas, homophobia and fear can come into play, Norton doesn’t see those issues as the real culprits of division.

 

“Groupthink makes it hard to go against the system, go against the grain,” said Norton. “It’s easier to stay quiet and to keep your head down and quote a scripture and just kind of keep it moving.”

 

That group mentality can affect individual thinking as well, leading to internal struggles.

 

Willis, the actor, also participated in the talkback. He said playing Pickles helped him understand how the ignorance that can fester within the Black church affected him.

 

“(It) is not necessarily about the external forces, but the internal self-hatred,” Willis said, “the quiet, eliminating yourself from the love of God.”

 

All the characters in this play deal with their relationships with God and faith and demonstrate ways the Black church can have a complex relationship with queerness. Pickles, Sis, Effie and Breedlove also illustrate a diversity of those queer Black churchgoers’ experiences.


G. McAdams, or Mick, a dedicated senior at the J. Graham Brown School, is committed to attend Agnes Scott College in the fall. They are a softball player, member of the Youth Leadership Council at Louisville Youth Group, a politically engaged citizen, and a loving older sister. They also participate in their school’s academic team, Model United Nations Assembly, Black Student Union, and school newspaper, The Bear Necessities.

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