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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
The lead characters are based on you and your parents. How much of this play is your family’s story?
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?
Yeah, you don’t have an addict in the play.
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.
Was that something that you experienced in Pleasant Grove?
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.
Deciding to stand up to that is not an easy decision either.
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?
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?
How do you think they’d feel about this play?
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?
Was your dad killed at the candy shop?
The play itself doesn’t depict your father’s death. Why did you decide to avoid that?
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.