Out playwright Jonathan Norton turns his childhood into a world premiere play for DTC

As a kid growing up in Pleasant Grove in the 1980s, Jonathan Norton saw the devastating effects crack inflicted on African-American families. At the same time, he observed good-hearted people who cared enough for their communities to take on the task of keeping neighborhoods together. And at some point he must have figured, “This would make a plot for a play.”

And now it has.

Already an acclaimed playwright of Mississippi Goddam, My Tidy List of Terrors, homeschooled and the recent Solstice, Norton is enjoying his first full commission from the Tony Award-winning Dallas Theater Center. Penny Candy opens this week after a two-year journey that went from germ to idea to script and now reality.

The plot follows the life of Jon-Jon, a 12-year-old boy who helps his parents run Paw Paw’s Candy Tree, a so-called ‘candy house” they operate from their dilapidated Southeast Dallas apartment. After a violent event shakes the neighborhood, Jon-Jon’s parents contemplate closing the business, which has become a gathering spot for locals of a crack-stricken neighborhood controlled by a drug dealer.

“It tells the story of [the same kind of] mom-and-pop candy house that my parents operated when I was growing up,” Norton says. “And basically, it is just what it [sounds like] — a candy store in somebody’s home.”

Like Jon-Jon’s experience, Norton’s neighbors visited his family’s apartment almost every day, especially during summer when most children had time away from school. Communities, he observed, often revolved around food-focused gathering spots, especially specialty food stores, such as candy shops. During a slow day, a dozen or so people popped in. On other days, Norton watched as patrons trafficked through, swinging in and out of his home not just to buy sweets, but to chat and socialize.

The Nortons did not always live in the candy house, however. They moved to Red Oak in the late ’80s, but still kept their Pleasant Grove store open for business. Eventually, his parents bought a van and drove to familiar spots in the old neighborhood to sell sweets. But his mother felt commuting back-and-forth to the area was rough on the family, despite his father’s desire to keep the small business afloat.

In 1991, they finally closed shop for good.

Norton hatched the idea for a story about the life he knew in Pleasant Grove a couple of years before the DTC commissioned him. At first, he envisioned a story without a child character, but that tale was too gloomy and missing a vital piece.

“That play in my mind was kind of like The Wire or Homicide: Life on the Street,” he says. “It was really dark and graphic, really disturbing. But I could never write it for some reason.”

After he reflected more on his upbringing, Norton introduced Jon-Jon into the narrative, and his story’s tone brightened. His angle became less about the sullen days of his childhood neighborhood and more about the togetherness his community had before a drug epidemic.

But Norton did not want to center a story around the chaos fueled by crack users and dealers. Instead, he wrote a narrative about the people and families who try to preserve community bonds during dark times. After a family conflict, Norton’s parents closed the candy house, leaving him to wonder where the people who regularly visited would go.

“That was another thing for my dad about the idea of letting the candy house go,” he says. “Realizing what would fill that void, not just where they go for candy or whatever, but where they go to meet and know each other and have a safe place.”

Penny Candy could be a double entendre for both the cheap cent-priced candy his parents sold and a slang term for illicit drugs. But more importantly, the title is a nod to a time before crack and its stigma destroyed tight-knit bonds forged in the black community.

“As African-Americans, because of that period in our history, many of us no longer have a memory or knowledge of a time before crack,” Norton says. “There are generations now that have no memory of what that innocence was before.

And even those of us who do remember, the darker elements tend to outweigh the lighter elements. One of my missions with Penny Candy is to have a play for African-American audiences to remind us of who we were and what our communities were like.”

— John Carder McClanahan