The Pleasant Grove in playwright Jonathan Norton’s ‘penny candy’, suffice to say, is home, but fraught with the attendant turmoil of a neighborhood in transition.
Norton, who grew up in the Grove, portrays a snapshot of time in the community in his latest work, “penny candy,” which hits the stage with its world premiere as a Dallas Theater Center production at the Studio Theatre of the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre beginning Wednesday, June 5.
The story was borne by the extremely capable hands of Norton, the DTC’s playwright-in-residence, whose work has been produced or developed by a whos-who of theater companies, including PlayPenn, InterAct Theatre Company, Pyramid Theatre Company, Black and Latino Playwrights Conference, Bishop Arts Theatre Center, Castillo Theatre, Soul Rep Theater Company, African American Repertory Theater, Kitchen Dog Theater, Undermain Theatre, Theatre Three, and South Dallas Cultural Center.
His play ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ was a Finalist for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award and won the 2016 M. Elizabeth Osborn Award given by the American Theatre Critics Association.
His latest work tells the story of 12-year-old Jon-Jon, who helps his father run Paw Paw’s Candy Tree out of their one-bedroom apartment in Pleasant Grove. But as the neighborhood heads towards drug-fueled violence and racial tensions, the penny candy store begins to lose business, and the family is faced with the decision to leave or stay.
It stars DTC Resident Artists Ace Anderson, Tiana Kaye Blair, and Liz Mikel, as well as Leon Addison Brown, Claudia Logan, Esau Price, and Jamal Sterling.
Norton, who graduated from Dallas ISD’s Booker T. Washington School for the Performing Arts and Marymount College in New York, talked to us on a rare day off this week.
“The play is set in Pleasant Grove in the year 1988, and it tells the story of a husband and wife run a mom-and-pop candy store out of an apartment and when the play begins, crack cocaine is beginning to invade the neighborhood,” Norton explained. “And the father wants to fight it and keep the family business alive and pursue the American dream. But the mother wants out. She says that’s not what she signed up for.”
That discussion of what community means — and what keeping it intact should require, reverberates throughout the story.
“And ultimately it’s about what does it mean to either fight for your community or put your family first. And also what is the value to a community of having a place like a candy house,” Norton said. “So that neighborhood hub type place where everybody comes to and hs stories to share and life experiences kind of happened under that roof with all the different neighbors who come in and out, and what is the void that’s left with that when that place goes away.”
Norton also knows that his neighborhood is once again in transition — it’s inevitable as affordable housing evaporates in neighborhoods, and would-be homebuyers begin looking in more affordable areas. Pleasant Grove, as of late, has become quite the haven for investors looking to flip a house with an affordable price point, and families are beginning to see it as desirable because of the incredible turnarounds the Dallas ISD schools there have accomplished.
Norton said he hopes that new investment doesn’t come at the price of the personality and culture of the neighborhood.
“Just find ways to invest in the community and invest into the lives of people,” he said.
Complaints about gentrification from long-time community members often come as those members see the tight-knit, familial nature of their neighborhood go by the wayside. Where neighbors used to know each other and where lives were intertwined in a way that provided both inclusion and safety, instead are replaced by virtual fence chats and porch talks on NextDoor and Facebook.
“And that’s the reason why everyone complains, because that’s the Pleasant Grove that I remember and remembering my childhood and my neighbors — that really strong tight-knit family that we had and just remembering summers and like pool parties during the summer, and all the neighborhood get-togethers and how that idea of everyone was always kind of in each other’s business,” Norton said, adding that he hopes that as people turn to the area for its affordable housing and good schools, what makes Pleasant Grove home to him and other families like the one depicted in ‘penny candy’ is not lost.
“And I think one of my one of my concerns as you know more attention is given to Pleasant Grove is that we don’t lose sight of the families that are already there,” he said. “And that it doesn’t become a situation when you have gentrification and those families are pushed out and then and then where do they go?”
“I think that it’s both a blessing and a curse — I feel like it’s perhaps one of the last few parts of the city has so far escaped those aspects of gentrification, and there’s concern about how much longer can that last.”
But for now, at least one of the stories of Pleasant Grove is being told on the stage, giving the rest of the world — thanks to one of its own former members — a glimpse into a community that has so many stories to tell.
The play runs from June 5 through July 14. To get tickets, visit the Dallas Theater Center’s website.