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Regina Taylor and Jonathan Norton

Artist to Artist: penny candy

Award-winning playwright and actress Regina Taylor talks to Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton about his play penny candy, premiering at the Dallas Theater Center.



published Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Photo: Courtesy the artists
Regina Taylor and Jonathan Norton

 

Artist to Artist: Regina Taylor and Jonathan Norton

Editor's note: The following conversation has been structured in play in five scenes.

 

CHARACTERS

Regina: Dallas native Regina Taylor, award-winning playwright whose works include Oo-Bla-Dee, The Trinity River Play (premiered at Dallas Theater Center in 2010, a co-production with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre), Drowning Crow (Broadway, 2004), Crowns, Bread (premiered at WaterTower Theatre in 2018). As an actor, she’s been on Broadway (three Shakespeare plays in the 1980s), film and TV, and won a Golden Globe (and was Emmy-nominated) for the TV series I’ll Fly Away.

For TheaterJones.com, Taylor has previously interviewed playwright Boo Killebrew for Miller, Mississippi, at Dallas Theater Center; and was interviewed by Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton when Soul Rep Theatre Company presented two of the three works in The Trinity River Plays in 2017. That brings us to…

 

Jonathan: Longtime Dallas resident Jonathan Norton, whose plays include My Tidy List of Terrors (premiered at South Dallas Cultural Center; being revived in 2020 at Jubilee Theatre), homeschooled (premiered at African American Repertory Theatre), Mississippi Goddamn (premiered at South Dallas Cultural Center; awarded the M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award), and the forthcoming A Love Offering.

This work, penny candy, was commissioned by Dallas Theater Center and, like homeschooled, is the recipient of a TACA New Works Fund. It was developed at PlayPenn and Dallas Theater Center. It began previews on June 7 and opens Wednesday, June 12, running through July 14 at the Wyly Theatre Sixth Floor Studio Theatre.

The autobiographical play, set in Pleasant Grove in the 1980s, is set in a family-run candy story in an apartment complex. It is directed by Derrick Sanders and features Diane and Hal Brierley Resident Acting Company members Ace Anderson, Tiana Kaye Blair, and Liz Mikel, as well as Jamal Sterling, Claudia Logan, Leon Addison Brown, and Esau Price as Jon-Jon.

 

Note: In this conversation, Regina sometimes takes the voice of the third-person narrator, and sometimes asks questions directly to Jonathan. Those questions are in bold. “Stage directions” are in italicsAll of Jonathan’s dialogue is a direct quote from him.

 

Photo: Karen Almond/Dallas Theater Center
Liz Mikel, Claudia Logan and Leon Addison Brown in Penny Candy at Dallas Theater Center

 

SCENE 1

  

REGINA:

Jonathan Norton can be noted for his big fro’ and striking eyes which, like his writing, holds a gaze of power, innocence, optimism and resilience.

We are talking about penny candy, his debut play at Dallas Theater Center.

Set in Pleasant Grove, an area of southeast Dallas where Jonathan grew up, it’s a place where whites fled as African-Americans and Latinx residents moved in during the 1970’s.

 

JONATHAN:

It is a play about me, my Mom and Dad and the Candy House we had in the 1980’s. I feel like I put my parents in the middle of an action movie. My father is in the center as a flawed hero.

 

REGINA:

A Candy House was usually run out of someone’s home/living room where they sold snacks, pickles, Now-and-Laters and chips for the neighborhood.

The tagline for the play is-

Life in Dallas’ Pleasant Grove was both sweet and sour

 

What was the sweet and what was the sour?

JONATHAN:

The sweet- the neighborhood friendships, pool parties, [my] dad’s barbecues, the block-party DJ’s where I would stand in the window and do commercials for the Candy Store. Crazy fun stuff.

The sour- Crack cocaine invaded the neighborhood in the 80’s. It became a ghost town. There was a girl. Everyone said her mother was on drugs… Relationships changed.

 

REGINA:

This aspirational community of color began to come apart at the seams.

 

It’s here that the drama of his story begins.

 

Why 1988? 

 

JONATHAN:

Doing research in the Dallas Morning News archives, specifically, crack cocaine in Dallas stories emerged. Also, 1988 was pivotal in race relations.

 

REGINA:

Jonathan explains that Dallas never had a Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s like other cities. There was turbulent growth as people started talking about race.

 

JONATHAN:

Inequality in the 80’s was incited by the shooting death of Eda Collins, a 70-year-old woman who was shot on her front porch when she called the police for assistance… or David Horton, a senior citizen who belonged to his neighborhood watch. He called police and went to the parking lot. Police shot him…

 

REGINA:

In his research, Jonathan found that Al Lipscomb and Diane Ragsdale were vocal in these cases. These stories are documented during this time as well as…

 

JONATHAN:

White officers who were murdered by black men.

 

REGINA:

There was dissension because Lipscomb and Ragsdale didn’t attend for their deaths. An African-American peace officer was murdered but officers did not rally for him. Congressional hearings were held during this time and these stories made national news about race relations in Dallas.

 

REGINA:

How autobiographical is penny candy? 

 

JONATHAN:

Very much.

 

REGINA:

Then he breaks it down to “70 percent autobiographical.” And 30 percent his “12-year-old action-adventure mind.”

 

JONATHAN:

It is myself and my parents and based on neighbors and people we knew very well. Because of the Candy House so many people came through. We had friendships with various folk.

 

REGINA:

He explains that some characters are composites, like the character of Rose…

 

JONATHAN:

… a combination of a drug dealer in the neighborhood and a woman from Little Rock who was taken in by my parents.

 

REGINA:

Some things of his life are off limits in the play, like his father’s homicide.

 

JONATHAN:

Staging that would be difficult.

 

REGINA:

He sees this play being done in the future by different theaters and admits to being “uncomfortable” with the idea of this very personal history being passed down to different and unknown hands.

 

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Jonathan Norton photographed for TheaterJones in 2015

 

SCENE 2 

 

REGINA:

Jonathan Norton was adopted in Houston. He and his family moved to Dallas when he was one-and-a-half. His mother Laura Mae Norton was from Bartlett, near Palestine. His father Willie James Norton was from Louisiana and worked at a plant that made construction vehicles for 27 years before he was dismissed. The started the Candy House as a way to own something of their own after they moved to Pleasant Grove.

Norton knew he was adopted early on.

 

JONATHAN:

My parents were honest with me.

 

REGINA:

He didn’t wonder about his biological parents as he grew up.

 

JONATHAN:

I had no sense of what was passed down.

 

REGINA:

Not until he was older.

 

JONATHAN:

I had a cousin who was like my mother. How she looked how she acted was just like my mother… It wasn’t until I was older that I wondered… What defines us beyond DNA?

 

REGINA:

Certainly, his parents had a great influence on his life. They were both hard workers and entrepreneurial. Their dreams were for a better life for themselves and for their only child. They taught him to reach for his dreams. As they were always reaching for a better life in their constant moves.

What did their American Dream look like?

After Pleasant Grove they moved to rural Red Oak, in Ellis County [immediately south of Dallas County]. It was a piece of land that they paid for.

They still kept the Candy House business and would get up early in the morning to go back to Pleasant Grove to work. Their life was still there, with their neighbors. Pleasant Grove remained their community.

 

JONATHAN:

We would go back to Red Oak to sleep. Along with being able to provide for family there was a pride in ownership. Place.

 

REGINA:

Beyond DNA — what’s passed down — is a desire to reach for and work hard for dreams, for place.

 

JONATHAN:

I think my parents would love this play. They would be amazed by what I remember.

 

REGINA:

Those minute details are from a writer’s eye.

He remembers that when he first entered Robert [R.C.] Buckner Elementary School, he was put into special education classes.

 

JONATHAN:

I was quiet and shy when I started school. I spent time around parents and adults and wasn't socialized around kids. I didn’t know how to be a kid. I made friends after the Candy House.

 

REGINA:

He describes Robert Buckner as “a learning center.” The classroom was a big open area, understaffed and distracting. Julius Dorsey [his second school] was more diverse but didn’t track kids like that.

 

JONATHAN:

[It was] designed like a real school, [with] real school desks.

 

REGINA:

Here he was recognized as special — a gifted student.

He knew he wanted to be a writer early on. He always had a creative spirit and energy. In elementary school, if he was given a special assignment…

 

JONATHAN:

I would turn it into a play.

 

REGINA:

He wanted to be a writer or an Imagineer for Disney. He wanted to be the one who creates all the places.

 

JONATHAN:

The physical spaces, attractions — who creates the backstory for the attractions?

 

REGINA:

He dreamed of being the orchestrator of the special experiences of the Disney theme parks. He recalls a time of convincing his parents to take him to Disney. They drove all the way there so that he could see Captain Eno, a 3-D movie starring Michael Jackson.

 

JONATHAN:

I didn’t tell them that it lasted 17 minutes. They both looked at me…

 

REGINA:

His parents were…

 

JONATHAN:

Protective and very supportive of me.

 

REGINA:

As an only child they figured…

 

JONATHAN:

You got one shot — you got to invest in it.

 

REGINA:

Jonathan admits that he wasn’t good in sports, math…

 

JONATHAN:

I loved the arts.

 

REGINA:

He got involved in Theatre Three and the Boys’ Choir. He got to travel. Into new worlds. His parents encouraged him every step of the way into worlds outside of Pleasant Grove.

 

Photo: Courtesy Regina Taylor
Regina Taylor

SCENE 3 

 

REGINA:

Jonathan graduated from Booker T. Washington Performing and Visual Arts where he dreamed of being an Actor. He left Dallas to attend Marymount Manhattan College, studying for a BFA.

 

Why did you return?

 

JONATHAN:

Poor planning on my part. Hadn’t lined up anything in New York.

 

REGINA:

What he felt about New York was that you moved there if you are…

 

JONATHAN:

Young and don’t care — or if you had lots of money.  I was young but after four years of no money I came back home.

 

REGINA:

He returned to Family. Mother. And he found a more vibrant and growing Dallas theater scene with…

 

JONATHAN:

New work happening [with groups like] Kitchen Dog Theater. There were new companies, new plays.

 

REGINA:

He enrolled in Southern Methodist University for his Masters, where Vicki Meek, who was the director of the South Dallas Cultural Center was his independent study advisor. He was writing a play based on an African-American visual artist…

 

JONATHAN:

[Vicki] did not want me to abandon the play.

 

REGINA:

Vicki Meek gave Jonathan his first commission.

 

JONATHAN:

Twenty-five-hundred dollars was a lot of money!

 

REGINA:

That completed play, My Tidy List of Terrors, premiered in 2012, and will have its second production Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre next season. Vicki later commissioned his play Mississippi Goddamn, for which Norton was a finalist for the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award and won the M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award.

Another mentor, Teresa Coleman Wash, who heads Bishop Arts Theatre Center, gave Jonathan space to start a writer’s group.

 

JONATHAN:

Teresa kept trying to get me to apply for a literary prize for new plays there. The first time I entered I got fifth place.

 

REGINA:

On the second try, he won. That play, The Last Supper, was a dark comedy about a woman and her relationship with a picture of Jesus, as her son is trying to come out as gay. He was at first uncomfortable with the competition because the audience decides the winner. But he was proud of the win because his number of votes far exceeded the number of family and friends he had invited.

 

SCENE 4 

 

REGINA:

Jonathan feels he has come full circle with penny candy and with his appointment as Resident Playwright at Dallas Theater Center.

He recalls seeing his first play at DTC as a child…

 

JONATHAN:

It was A Christmas Carol.

 

REGINA:

Watching, he would wonder…

 

JONATHAN:

Where do actors go when not on the stage? What do they do?

 

REGINA:

He took the Dallas Playwrights Workshop, created by Will Power, who was resident playwright at the time. Jonathan has recently relaunched this workshop, which gives Dallas Playwrights an opportunity to hone their craft.

Jonathan humbly acknowledges his recognitions and new place in the Dallas arts scene.

 

JONATHAN:

It’s affirming that I’m going in the right direction. It allows me to open doors for other playwrights. So many have to leave and come back. If I can create an energy and atmosphere, so writers can have opportunities here.”

 

REGINA:

The Imagineer’s wheels are turning…

 

Photo: Karen Almond/Dallas Theater Center
Ace Anderson and Esau Price in Penny Candy at Dallas Theater Center

SCENE 5

 

REGINA:

We return to penny candy…

 

JONATHAN:

What I want to explore is a time before crack. A neighborhood holding on to the innocence of yesterday, with the violence looming in new horizon. …A time of vitality in a black neighborhood, to remind people of our humanity… How humanity can be struck from us so quickly.

Our images are tied to drugs. Those issues were not issues we created ourselves.

 

REGINA:

What is the thread in your work? 

 

JONATHAN:

Community. Exploring and championing African-American communities and the love that we have for each other. The fear that we experience. What it is to make decisions that may not be in our best interest because of fear… How we make decisions to combat challenges.

 

REGINA:

How is this play different from your other plays?

 

JONATHAN:

Scope of the imagination. Will [Power] told me it was an opportunity to dream big. Go big or go home. [It’s] why there is a snow cone machine, television, gore elements, a transformation of set, period props, costumes and wigs, fully functioning kitchen. It’s a huge production, with the audience sitting in the chaos.

 

REGINA:

He describes how sometimes writers diminish the physical/technical aspects so that other theaters can produce it.

I ask again, how it is different from your other plays?

 

JONATHAN:

It’s my most personal play I've ever written. I feel more vulnerable.

 

REGINA:

He’s more sensitive to critical feedback of the characters.

 

JONATHAN:

That’s my mom. That’s my dad!

 

REGINA:

Sometimes it’s hard to separate dramaturgical comments and personal feelings.

What is special about Jonathan’s gaze as the writer of penny candy?

 

JONATHAN:

My coming from Pleasant Grove. Often it gets overlooked unless it’s about crime. It has not been touched by gentrification yet. Buckner Boulevard is more diverse but hasn’t been taken over. There’s no Starbucks.

 

REGINA:

What does this special and gifted writer want audiences to take from penny candy?

 

JONATHAN:

In penny candy there is an appreciation for beauty and heartbreak. Of black people living and loving. They will see a black neighborhood worth fighting for. (with extra passion) Seeing people on opposite ends of crime, but on both ends you see people wanting a better way for this place. Thanks For Reading





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Artist to Artist: penny candy
Award-winning playwright and actress Regina Taylor talks to Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton about his play penny candy, premiering at the Dallas Theater Center.
by Regina Taylor

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