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Jonathan Norton On Selling “Penny Candy” And The Story Of His Pleasant Grove Neighborhood 27

When Jonathan Norton was growing up in Pleasant Grove, his parents ran a candy house out of an apartment, a place where neighbors could buy snow cones, Frito pie and sweet treats. That candy house is the setting for Norton’s new play “Penny Candy,” now playing at Dallas Theater Center. And its main characters –  Dubba J, Laura Mae and Jon-Jon – are loosely based on his parents and himself. In State of the Arts, Norton tells me why he chose to take a semi-autobiographical look at a neighborhood coming to grips with crack cocaine.

Can you explain what a candy house is?

JNI’m not too sure entirely, if it’s absolutely an African American thing. In the last few months, as I’m talking about the show, I’ve met people who are not African American who have memories of a candy house in their neighborhood. But it’s a candy store, a mom-and-pop store, that’s operated out of someone’s home. Their living room, their kitchen.

They can vary in sizes. My parents’ candy house, I always described as the Wal-Mart of candy houses. It was really cool. It was really big.

“Penny Candy” runs through July 14 at Dallas Theater Center. Details.

We had them in various apartments that we lived in at different times. They had a real cool operation. A lot of times they would send me out to spy on some of the other candy houses that were popping up in the neighborhood. I would come back and say, “Meh, I give em a week, two weeks tops.” [Those other places] were a really simple thing, you’d walk in and they’d have random candy on the coffee table and if you asked for a snow cone, they’d make you go back to the kitchen.

But my parents, we actually made snow cones with a snow cone machine and my dad barbecued and we made nachos and Frito Pies. And eventually we got a really cool glass candy counter.  So it was a real operation. But they vary in size.   

What did that place mean to the neighborhood?

JNIt was a gathering place. It was, to some extent, a default baby sitter. Because it was a place where a lot of parents knew it was safe for their kids to either hang out inside the candy house or play right outside the candy house.

My experience, growing up in the candy house, in the 1980s, which seems to be ground zero for latch key kids; You have a ton of latch key kids in the neighborhood and the candy house is like that place that is deemed safe.

And then it was also a place where all the ladies would gather to gossip.

And sometimes…. people would come to the neighborhood to sell stuff that was stolen. The candy house was the spot that they would come to sell stolen goods. I remember the people who would steal clothes. The ladies in the neighborhood would say, “Oh, I want this. Can you get me this?”   We called them the booster people, the booster lady. So on payday, here comes the booster lady, she would come and say, “Oh I got you those boots. I got you this jump suit you wanted.” 

What did that place mean to your parents?

JNFor my parents, the candy house was an opportunity for independence and empowerment in different types of ways. I think for my mom, it was something to do – she was always business-minded and entrepreneurial. So it was her way of having her business, that she was proud of. It was something to do outside of being a stay-at-home mom.

And then for my dad, many years later,  when he took over, it was very meaningful to him because he had just been forced into early retirement. He had this job, the thing that meant so much to him, it was taken away from him. So the candy house was a way of reclaiming that sense of manhood, that sense of being the head of the household. The provider.

Liz Mikel, Esau Price, Leon Addison Brown in Penny Candy - Photo Karen Almond (1).jpg

Liz Mikel, Esau Price, Leon Addison Brown in “Penny Candy.” Photo: Karen Almond

The lead characters are based on you and your parents. How much of this play is your family’s story?

JNI would say a good 70 percent of it. And then there’s the 30 percent of it that I like to think of as an ’80s action movie. In many ways, I think of the play as my attempt at putting my parents inside an ’80s action movie and imagining my dad as the hero. My dad as Sylvester Stallone.  It’s really cool because when I think of my dad, he was a really sweet, kindly older man. I mean, he wouldn’t hurt a fly. So just imagining him in that way is really fun and really cool. 

The play takes place in the 1980s, as crack is taking hold, and really changing neighborhoods, not just in Pleasant Grove, but around the country. What were you interested in exploring about that time?

JN I wanted to explore the devastation that crack-cocaine had on African-American communities, and the thing I’ve always found interesting is that drug abuse and drug dealing, and what have you, addiction, those are issues that exist in all communities. Highland Park, Plano, University Park, all over, right? But those communities basically still remain in-tact. The values, the infrastructure, the wealth, none of that is really compromised by addiction, or drugs, or heroin, or meth, or what have you in those communities. But in African-American communities, crack-cocaine really devastated and tore apart the fabric of our communities in ways that we don’t see necessarily with drugs in white communities. And so, that was also one of the reasons the play really focuses on the impact of the drug on the neighborhood, as opposed to the impact of a drug on individuals, or on an individual family, like someone being addicted, or being an addict. 

Yeah, you don’t have an addict in the play.

JN Correct, and the reason for that is I think that depicting crack addiction is such a nuanced and sensitive thing, and for me, unless I’m willing to write an entire play where the protagonist is a crack addict, it’s like, you do that or you do nothing at all. Because I feel that no other drug has the stigma associated with it that crack-cocaine has. Not meth, not heroin –you know, you say “crackhead” and that means something so horrible, and so disgusting, and so vile, and no other drug has that. And when you think of families, when you think of people struggling with, like, heroin addiction, or meth, or what have you, there’s still a sense of compassion oftentimes that people will have for that person.

But there’s always been something about crack-cocaine, that is just this villainous, demonic type thing, that we associate it with. And also, on top of that, it’s completely racist. You know, that that’s how our communities, how our people who are African-American and addicts, even if it’s not crack, that’s just who you are. That’s what people think of you as, you know what I mean? And so, the stigma attached to crack-cocaine is such, that it deserves a very sensitive, nuanced portrayal, and I feel that if you don’t have space…. In this particular play, there’s actually not space for that because that’s not what the play is about. So if you don’t have space for that nuanced type of storytelling, and nuanced depiction of the character, it’s better to not do a disservice to those characters and the people that are living through that. 

The play really gets across the confusion and anger and disbelief that happens when your neighborhood changes, and you can’t control it.

JN Right. 

Was that something that you experienced in Pleasant Grove?

JN Yeah, it was. I mean, the thing that I remember is, and the way that I track it, is that there is a period when I had a lot of friends in the neighborhood, and I remember going to pool parties, and having activities during the summer, and going to the rec center with my friends, and what have you. And there was a period where all of that kind of went away, and it was just me, my mom and my dad, and the candy house, and the people that would come through to buy candy. Many of which, by that point, was no longer really kids and families, but it was adults.

So, the way I tracked the impact of crack-cocaine in my neighborhood growing up was just the disappearance of my friends, most of whom were just, y’know, their parents picked them up and moved to another neighborhood, or a place that they thought might be safer. But what’s interesting, though, is that the neighborhood that we were living in, that a lot of people abandoned because of drugs, what happened there is that it almost became a bit of a ghost town. So, it’s kind of a blessing and a curse. Because we really didn’t necessarily have to deal with gangs and what have you. But I felt that a lot of my friends whose parents up and moved, trying to find a safer neighborhood, they eventually ended up going to a neighborhood, or a place that was probably just as bad. 

In this play, all of the characters are grappling with how they’re going to respond to the gangs, the neighborhood dealer. You know, fight him, join him, ignore him. And I think so often, when we’re outside it, we think that that’s a really easy decision, or there’s a “yes” or “no” kind of answer, but the choices are really not that simple.

JN Yeah, it’s never really a “yes” or “no” answer. I mean, there’s, first of all, the family ties and bonds that you have to neighbors, and to family members who live in your neighborhood, and the sense of “If I leave, what might happen to this person?”  You know? And then, also, many times there’s just economic issues, like not everyone has the ability or the finances to just up and move very easily, you know? That’s also a part of it. And then there’s also a fear of going from one bad situation to another bad situation. And having to be really thoughtful about “Am I making the best decision for my family at this moment?” And not knowing what might be on the other side of that question, or on the other side of town, or what have you. So it’s never as easy as just up and leave, and find a better place to live. 

Deciding to stand up to that is not an easy decision either.

JN Well, because it’s this idea of weighing pros and cons. But also, in the play, one of the major characters is Kingston, a Jamaican drug dealer. And Kingston, in many ways, is based on, I guess a couple of drug dealers. I didn’t know them, like, personally, but they were the dealers that were in the neighborhood, that you kind of heard of, and I remember they were always, like, really nice people, the nicest neighbors.

And one thing I really do remember is that it felt like they kind of policed the neighborhood in a certain way, you know what I mean? And so, they were actually people that you could look to to keep some sense of law and order in the community. So, this thought of, “if I tried to go against that individual,” it’s no longer just a question of just like, good or evil, or is this a good person or a bad person, is this legal or is this illegal. It becomes also a question of: “Is it in my best interest?” Not from a standpoint that this person might try to harm me if I do something against them, but if I get rid of this person, if I get them out of my neighborhood, is that really the best thing for my family? Because this person could actually be the person, potentially, that can save my family’s life. Which is a horrible way to think of things, you know what I mean? And yet, it was also a reality as well. 

When you started writing this play, it was just about your parents. And it was kind of dark. Then you added yourself into the mix. Why did you do that?

JNBecause I had this moment when I realized that the version of the play that I had in my mind without me was, as you said, incredibly dark. “The Wire” meets “Homicide: Life on the Streets” dark.  People doing things in bathrooms for drugs. Reeeeally dark.

And the truth of it was, that wasn’t my childhood. And that’s not what I remembered. And I began to think why would I want to remember my parents that way? And when I began to imagine the play not being that dark, and having a lighter tone, that was when I was finally able to find myself inside the story. It wasn’t possible for me to exist as a character in that darker version of the play.

Both of your parents are dead now. Your dad was killed in a robbery, your mom died, was it ten years after?

JN Yeah. 


How do you think they’d feel about this play?

JN I think they’d be a little shocked at all the profanity. I’m sure my mom would be like, “I don’t cuss!” I’m like, “Yes, yes, you cussed a lot.” The funny thing was that growing up, I never cussed. It was actually not until after my mom died that I started cursing, because I figured I had to carry on the family tradition.

But I also think that they would be really honored and really proud. And I think my dad would be really excited just to see himself, like, kicking butt, or trying to kick butt. He doesn’t kick butt very well in the play, but he’s trying. And you know, I just think seeing the fact that all these little details of the candy house, you would think a kid’s not paying attention to, I was actually paying attention to all these little things. And I think that would mean something. 

What happened to the candy house?

JN What happened to the candy house? My father passed away in 1991, and me and my mom, we just closed up shop after he passed. 

Was your dad killed at the candy shop?

JN Yeah, he was. 

 The play itself doesn’t depict your father’s death. Why did you decide to avoid that?

JN I think because it was difficult for me to imagine. If – I’m crossing my fingers – if the play were to have a future life, it was really difficult for me to imagine allowing other artists, or basically strangers, people who I would never meet, and who would never meet me, to stage my father’s death. You know what I mean?

That just felt weird, and strange, and a very personal thing, so like, you know, if it were just the idea that it’s just going to be done this one time, at the Dallas Theater Center, or if it were like a film or TV show, where it’s like, it’s more singular type of experience – a kind of one and done type situation, and I have the ability to be a part of that telling – that’s one thing. But with it being a play, and with it being something that I would hope to have a future life, that just felt less of something I was interested in handing over to other people to tell.