Dallas — Ten years ago, a budding playwright named Jonathan Norton proposed writing a guest column for a new theater website that had only been live for about six months. On July 28, 2009, TheaterJones published that column, with the headline A Place at the Table. In it, he questioned why professional North Texas theaters known for staging new(er) work — notably Dallas Theater Center and Kitchen Dog Theater — weren’t taking chances on local playwrights. His column drew both praise and criticism, and two days later we published those responses in a separate article, which you can read here.
What a difference a decade makes.
Professional theaters have indeed been doing more full productions by local writers, with playwrights like Blake Hackler, Michael Federico, and Matt Lyle regularly appearing in season line-ups at Second Thought Theatre, Theatre Three, and Kitchen Dog. And, yes, Norton has been among these ranks. In fact, the two local theaters he mentioned in that 2009 essay, Dallas Theater Center and Kitchen Dog, have Norton plays on their boards this year. Kitchen Dog will premiere Norton’s A Love Offering in September. At Dallas Theater Center, where Norton is now Playwright-in-Residence, the world premiere of his penny candy is closing this weekend after a five-week run at Dallas Theater Center, the last show in the subscription season.
Between then and now, Norton's works have included My Tidy List of Terrors (at the South Dallas Cultural Center in 2012; and his first local revival when it appears at Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre next season); homeschooled at African American Repertory Theater (and a recipient of a $25,000 grant from the TACA New Works Fund, in the first year of that award, 2012); and Mississippi Goddamn (South Dallas Cultural Center, 2015). Mississippi won the M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award in 2016, and has been produced by several theaters around the country. He’s also had short plays at Bishop Arts Theatre Center, and other projects. In 2015, DTC commissioned Norton and two other local writers, Matt Lyle and Steven Walters, for new plays. Lyle’s play, A 3D Adventure, wasn’t optioned by DTC but will premiere in a few months at Circle Theatre. Norton’s play was penny candy.
Penny candy has been workshopped for several years, and the final result is Norton’s finest work yet. The autobiographical play is set in the southeast Dallas neighborhood where he grew up, Pleasant Grove, in an apartment complex where his family ran a “candy house” out of their apartment. A candy house was the place where candy, hot dogs, nachos and other food items were sold, to make it easier for the residents.
The production, directed by Derrick Sanders, stars DTC Brierley Resident Acting Company members Liz Mikel as Laura Mae, Ace Anderson as Kingston and Tiana Kaye Johnson as Nicole, as well as local actors Jamal Sterling as Donnie and seventh grader Esau Price, who is Jon-Jon, essentially Norton as a kid. New York-based actors Leon Addison Brown (as Dubba-J) and Claudia Logan (as Rose) round out the cast. Designers include Courtney O’Neill (scenic), Samantha C. Jones (costumes), Alan C. Edwards (lighting), Elisheba Ittoop (sound and original music), Cherelle Guyton (wigs and make-up), Sarah Harris (video), and Ashley H. White (fight direction).
For a review of the production, I asked TheaterJones writers Janice L. Franklin and Richard Oliver to attend, and we conducted a series of email conversations about the piece. As African American writers, their voices were important to the commentary. It’s something we’re trying to be cognizant of — and plan to expand — at TheaterJones, to make sure writers of color weigh in on DFW’s arts scene.
Our conversation is below, with me prompting questions and making observations, and Janice and Richard responding. Also, read our conversation with Norton, conducted by and written in play form by award-winning playwright and Golden Globe-winning actress Regina Taylor, here.
Mark Lowry: I have seen all of Norton’s plays that have been produced this decade, including his one-act entries for Bishop Arts Theatre Center’s New Play Competition, My Tidy List of Terrors and Mississippi Goddamn at South Dallas Cultural Center, homeschooled from African American Repertory Theater, and The 67th Book of The Bible, performed for an MLK Symposium at Moody Performance Hall. Mississippi Goddamn was by far the best of those. With penny candy, he shows tremendous growth with dialogue and character development; these are all well-defined characters who are people you know, and every line has purpose.
It certainly helped that Norton had more time (and money) to develop this play, with help from PlayPenn in Philadelphia, and several readings and workshops at DTC. This play also received a TACA grant, this time of $50,000.
Janice, how many of Jonathan Norton's plays have you seen?
Janice L. Franklin: I also saw The 67th Book of The Bible, which was motivated by Dr. Martin L. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. For Mississippi Goddamn, I was part of the team serving as dramaturg for the 2015 production at the South Dallas Cultural Center. I cannot comment on the latest iteration of the play because I have neither read nor seen it.
Mississippi Goddamn is about a collective experience for black people during the Civil Rights movement through a glimpse into the life of one of our icons, Medgar Evers. Historical references mattered. The play had to be grounded in facts and research. It was structurally complex because it spanned two time periods and included the presence of the ghost of Evers.
As you know, being a part of new play development process means watching the script as a dynamic creation, which is manipulated by the writer often for each rehearsal. The characters in Mississippi are layered but so are the characters in penny candy. The difference is that the people in penny candy are more readily identifiable.
Jonathan’s personal connection to penny candy translates to a more intimate experience for an audience. In it and Mississippi there are some correlations. In each play he gives the acerbic wit to the youngest member of the family, who manages to get away with sassiness and sharp-tongued responses when his/her older sibling cannot. His female characters are strong, even when unsure about the path in front of them. His married female characters exude this strength but not at the expense of their mates, never emasculating, never devaluing. The married male characters in both plays are respectful to and with the females in their households.
Jonathan rejects the stereotype of black men beating their wives to a pulp and black women who are too difficult for black men to abide. The fathers in penny candy are with their children, which, by the way, is actually reflective of reality.
We continually hear the opposite, that black fathers are not in their children’s lives. This idea persists because of the high percentage of single-parent households within the black community based upon census information. What is missed is that this is not synonymous with absentee fathers. There are households where the father is in the home but not married to the mother. That makes her single, but it does not make the children fatherless. This arrangement is not unusual, by the way. That statistical data point does not reflect the relationships father maintain with their children when they do not live in the same house.
In Jonathan’s story we see two fathers who have made different choices, and who are battling different challenges. The constant is their willingness to die for their children, and their desire to clear a path for their children to improve their chances for good lives.
Mark Lowry: Richard, this was your first experience with Norton’s work. What are your overall thoughts of the script?
Richard Oliver: My first and most prevailing impression with Jonathan Norton's work is the beauty of his dialogue. I felt that the play's momentum rested squarely on the intimacy of the conversations had between characters. While there was a great deal of action and development surrounding the plot, what made it seem real and relevant was the effortless give-and-take written into the script. Norton's writing gives the players permission to move through moments of comedy, drama, and rage with an easy, organic flow.
For the production, the effective use of space and clever plot devices, like the television set [broadcasting news and TV shows] definitely helped to elevate my experience with the narrative; the familiar charm of the humble Candy Shop set against a tiny window to the big, noisy world outside evoked a hodgepodge of emotions — fear, excitement, contentment — that I think are universally felt by people of marginalized communities in times of worry and stress.
Mark: I grew up in the Casa View area of east Dallas, not far from Pleasant Grove. Janice, you’ve been in North Texas for several decades. You and I laughed at the references to places and people in Dallas, such as the now-gone Big Town Mall (I distinctly remember my parents buying appliances and household items from the Montgomery Ward and the Woolworth’s there), the now-defunct national grocery store chain Skaggs Alpha-Beta, and the Trinity River bridges in South Dallas where people sell fish, hot links, and other food products. There are also references to politicians John Wiley Price and Diane Ragsdale. How do these mentions contribute to the authenticity of this story? Would that limit theaters around the country who might want to produce it?
Janice: As for the local characters, those references can easily be switched out as a play moves from one location to another. Every city has a political figure with a large personality.
For a Dallas audience, these lines are everything because those are larger-than-life personalities who at least once did something that everyone will remember. For me, it was seeing John Wiley Price in biker shorts, T-shirt and tennis shoes leading a group of protestors down Harry Hines, during a peak time of day in summer. He knew how to infuriate people better than any of our other city leaders and his loyalists loved every minute of it. For a local audience, these references are proof of the playwright’s authenticity.
Just as the Seinfeld TV show carried over beyond the northeast corridor, then yes, penny candy can as well. As with numerous other plays, those references can be easily interchanged with local characters from the region of performance. Texans love to believe we are unique — but we are not. Excise the specific human and location references and you have an environment and situations which are replicated across this country.
Richard: Every story worth telling takes place somewhere with context of time and setting. I'm sure that I missed a great deal of references having not grown up in this area, but the core themes were still delivered with relatable poignancy.
Mark: The joke about the layaway manager at a local store slayed me.
Janice: Layaway is definitely a class reference and perhaps generational, though there are still stores with layaway programs (Walmart, Marshall’s). Anyone who has at least once had an item on layaway will immediately understand and react to that mention.
Mark: This show is set in 1988. Did the design accurately reflect the place and time? I especially loved the details of the set, with the candy counter and food on other surfaces in the kitchen and living room.
Janice: It was 1988 but a lot of the items on set are older. This makes sense because those items would either have been owned and transferred from their residence to the candy store, or they would have been easy (as in cheap or free) to acquire.
I might be mistaken but I think those were Home Interior décor items on the walls. That in and of itself said a lot about the parents. During the ’70s and even into the ’80s it was almost impossible to enter a working-class home in Texas that did not have at least one item from that Carrollton-based company. That tickled me because I remember the Home Interiors parties women would have in their homes, similar to the Mary Kay and Tupperware parties.
Cable TV still wasn’t in every home. Places were not automatically wired for cable. When renting, this would be under amenities, meaning it was not yet standard. Hence the TV you had to sometimes hit on the sides to get reception. Cable ensures reception.
Richard: I think the details put into the set and costume designs are one of the most crucial elements that make the play so effective. The clothes are one thing, but the wig work and hairstyles (namely the flat top haircuts) really take things up a notch. From the dated, leather wheeled chair to the sneakers and tube socks — even down to the simplistic charm of the hand-written menu against the back wall — everything came together quite well to convey an urban neighborhood shop in the ’80s.
Mark: Great character writing gives us distinctive, nuanced acting work from our locals Liz Mikel, Tiana Kaye Johnson, Jamal Sterling and Ace Anderson (although his Jamaican accent wasn’t consistent at the performance we saw). Claudia Logan as Rose was probably my favorite performance, and I felt the weight of the world in Brown’s portrayal of the father. Playing a younger version of the playwright, Esau Price was engaging and funny. Thoughts on the performances and Derrick Sanders’ direction?
Richard: Yeah, I was particularly impressed by Esau Price. Although, from what I saw of Mr. Norton in person, in terms of his personality, I wonder what kind of kid he was like, and I'd love to know what the process looked like for developing Price's Jon-Jon. I know Liz Mikel is a local favorite, and I thought she also did a great job. She was a refreshing mixture of humor and drama as a no-nonsense wife and mother, and I think her boisterousness helped keep the play lifted.
Janice: I too liked Claudia Logan. Esau Price has a future in acting, if he so desires.
I also liked Jamal, who was in Mississippi Goddamn. Jonathan had him in a brawl in that play too (ha!). Jamal is a good actor and his portrayal as a damaged man was great. I immediately thought of the vets I have known and currently know who are struggling just to focus from moment to moment. I felt something for Jamal’s character, Donnie.
As Dubba-J, Brown took me out of the moment and into the technical side of my brain. His movement and physicality bothered me, which I attribute to direction. I don’t think director Sanders was able to assist the actors with how they should handle their bodies. Liz is the type of actor who will, in those situations, simply take charge of herself and make those decisions. I sensed that Claudia Logan’s instincts were different from what we saw. Ace is going to make a decision and go with it as well, but this is not how it is supposed to work.
It looked as if the director had a vision for overall action, areas of the grid where this or that would occur, and levels regarding who was standing and who was seated. Otherwise he did not guide them regarding their bodies.
Mark: Richard and Janice, each of you grew up in circumstances very different to the one depicted here. I’ll admit that I had never heard of a candy house until Norton told me about this play a few years ago. We sometimes put too much value on the idea of "relatability," but even if your background isn’t similar to this, this play is plenty relatable. I’m thinking of Nicole's desire to make a better life for herself and Dubba-J and Laura Mae's hopes for their Jon-Jon.
Janice: Situations do not have to be relatable. People do. Through the characters, the play can be instructive regarding the situation, the environment. What matters is that the audience see the humanness in the characters, and perhaps a little of themselves.
My childhood was a safe cocoon, but I had to go to Vacation Bible school with its Kool-Aid-and-cookie bait. In our neighborhood and school, there was the tough girl who fought with her fists like a dude. I still remember being afraid of her but was glad she was in the neighborhood because she was a protector. This is how I see Rose. Jonathan gave a tough girl the name of a beautiful, sturdy flower that is associated with romance and femininity.
Every true parent wants to make a better life for themselves and their children. In the black community, especially the marginalized communities, that desire begins and ends with the wish for their literal survival. When black people say they hope to live to see another day, they are not being metaphorical. It is a serious hope; a prayer. I think that is relatable to parents regardless of circumstances and locale. It just resonates more deeply for those living without privilege.
Richard: I agree. The beauty of this play is how Norton manages to take a very particular event in a very specific location — with relevant proximity for locals —and use it to convey more universal themes. I will say, though, again, through his thoughtful writing and clever dialogue, there is a certain charm that nods to aspects of the African American experience that everyone from that community can understand. No, I did not grow up in that sort of setting, but that life was never far from me, and I think that is a common truth for all black people in America. That's the through-line that makes stories like this one resonate — that cultural familiarity is never far from anyone with brown skin. It's a result of our particular history.
Mark: What does penny candy have to say about the era and the crack epidemic?
Janice: The term “candy man” had more than one meaning in the black community, but more often it meant “drug dealer.” For me, the title alone suggested what at least one of the themes would be in the story. The play does not delve into how and why drugs have been so prevalent in the black community — that they were intentionally dumped into black neighborhoods as a means of controlling the community and retarding its upward mobility. It also helped feed the pipeline to prison and that workforce. We enter almost 30 years after that plan was put in place, seeing the results.
Let’s remember the “crack era” was the “cocaine era.” During the ’80s, purveyors of crack were chased while those with the real candy, the powder cocaine, typically avoided such raids and prosecution because they had easier access to attorneys who could take care of the problem. There is a drug caste system. Crack is cheaper and more lethal. Poor people are easier prey. Poor black people were the easiest and therefore the focus for law enforcement. It is easier to raid a candy store in Pleasant Grove than it is to march in a bank vice-president’s office and accuse him of supplying those drugs to neighborhoods across the region.
It is too easy to assign sociopathic nature to all drug dealers when in truth, there are levels. Drug dealers of the 80s were not identical to those of today. The product was different as were the reasons people decided to sell, just for a short time usually was their intent. Drug dealers are no more monolithic as a group than are communities of color.
Everything the drug dealer said was true. Having him in the neighborhood was far better than having a network that had no relationships within the community. His character reminds of me Mahershala Ali’s character, Juan, in Moonlight. He was a drug dealer with a conscience, a very different figure from our image of cartel associates.
Richard: I think penny candy shades the crack epidemic with a bit of gray. On one hand, Nicole's rather blatant abhorrence of Kingston and his business represents a very real need for improvements in black, low-income communities. The permeation of poisons like crack, and the subsequent violence that results from gangs, is a shameful cycle. On the other hand, Kingston represents another very real concept. He's a gruesome sort of Robin Hood, thriving in the dark corners of the society, but using his position to help and aid members of his community. It's easy to brand him as a villain, but in truth, I think there are much more like him, doing what they must in order to elevate their communities and keep a harmonious ecosystem functioning.
Mark: Additional thoughts?
Janice: Penny candy is about the human beings who populated that Pleasant Grove community. Communities like this are typically presented as statistics, case studies, trends — problems to be solved. These communities are the raids, the S.W.A.T. team news footage, the drug bust hauls. They are the crack houses, the boarded-up establishments, and the drug dealers positioned on every block in front of cooperating businesses. This is what the public sees.
In Jonathan’s play we are reminded that human beings decide to live life on the edges or not (Rose vs. Nicole), to go to school or to drop out, to start a business or sit on the corner (Dubba-J and Kingston vs. men on the corner), and to love their mates and children. Dubba-J and Laura Mae are surrogate parents for the lost kids in the neighborhood and the drug dealer protected them. They were not the dealer’s clients. They were his neighbors.
The news presents these people as problem sets. Jonathan has revealed the characters as individuals with stories worthy of being told — and heard.