I got to go home to Texas for the holidays. On Christmas Eve, I ate Frito pie; on Christmas Day, Marshall’s Bar-B-Q. At the end of the trip, my Nana sent me on an airplane back to Chicago with a carefully wrapped porcelain black-and-white cow. I am proud to be a playwright from Dallas, so I was thrilled during my visit to have a moment to meet and speak to another one: Jonathan Norton (he/him), who serves as the resident playwright and literary manager at Dallas Theater Center. We had a good long call full of laughs and lots in common. He also gave me some insight into his writing life, inspirations, and the joy of theatremaking in Dallas today.
In 2019, Norton’s play penny candy sold out 17 performances in a production directed by Derrick Sanders at DTC, and was then published in December 2021 by the Texas indie press Deep Vellum Publishing. The play focuses on 12-year-old Jon-Jon, who helps his father run a candy store out of their one-bedroom apartment. Meanwhile, their neighborhood Pleasant Grove becomes more violent amid racial tension and a drug epidemic. Needless to say, it’s not the living-in-a-candy-store fantasy most children would dream of, but the writing is at once both plot-twistingly thrilling and hilarious.
When Norton was developing the script, he wanted people who weren’t necessarily theatre people to come see it and to feel embraced. “I wanted a sense, right when you walked into the theatre, that you were experiencing whatever senses or stimuli feel like home to you,” he said. The set reflected this sensorially: It was a super-specific, hyperreal, fully operating candy house.
One day during intermission, an audience member told Norton that a breezeway that led into the apartment complex of the set reminded him of his grandmother’s apartment. The playwright took it as a compliment. “I use my family and people from my old neighborhood as a litmus test,” he said of his writing, asking himself about each choice, “What would they think of it?”
When I interviewed Norton, he was actually sitting in the theatre space where penny candy had been produced. Looking around, he said he couldn’t believe how much the set had transformed the room, and then was gone. Now, with the play being published, more readers can experience it without seeing a set at all, and Norton is excited about this potential reach.
Norton feels his play publication aligns with the credo of the National New Play Network, the rolling-world-premiere organization with whom he workshopped his play a love offering at both Dallas’s Kitchen Dog and at Philadelphia’s InterAct in 2018: “locally made theatre with national impact.”
“Sometimes it’s frustrating, because it can be easy for new work in the regions to fall through the cracks, not be recognized on a national level and never see a significant continued life,” Norton said. “So one of the reasons I’m grateful to Deep Vellum for publishing penny candy is that they’ve offered me a different way to share the play with the American theatre. It feels like baby Moses in a basket floating down the river.”
Norton takes pride in where he lives. He feels artists can too often silo themselves in places like New York, L.A., or London, and he’s not keen on the idea that any one city is the city, especially when many of these places are hard to survive in. Of Dallas he said, “We’re an incredibly robust, diverse community of hardworking people that actually make really, really, really good art. It’s easy for me to say that because it’s my home, but we have the DNA of the arts in our soil.” He told me more about the history of theatre in Dallas, and how Dallas is a birthplace of regional theatre. To Norton, regional theatre nurtures vigorous, beautiful, and profound plays all over the country, not just in a few cities.
In regards to making art within Texas’s polarized political landscape, Norton noted that Dallas is “a tiny blue dot floating in a sea of red,” a position he sees as a special opportunity to spark conversation. Unlike in some more predominantly liberal places, Dallas artists can’t assume audiences lean a certain way politically. Norton says, “We have the ability to create change and speak to truth in power,” he says. “We’re not always preaching to the choir.”
As a Black playwright, Norton is adamant about embracing audiences on their own terms. In the early stages of writing penny candy, it occurred to him that the play he was writing was turning out to be pretty moody and disturbing, and that wasn’t how he wanted to remember his parents.
“One of my impulses that helped push this play out of me was this desire to see my parents, who are both now deceased, as heroes,” Norton said. “To take them and put them in this life-or-death, high-stakes situation—they’re just regular folk, really—and to imagine them in a larger-than-life way. I think that was really the emanating impulse that brought this play into the world.”
Norton also wrote (with Vivian Barnes and Gab Reisman) Are You There, a play of nine fragmented pieces that critiques contemporary communication. Are You There was meant to be at the Humana Festival in 2020 but was among the shows canceled by pandemic lockdown. Soon after that, he was commissioned for a new play at DTC. “It finally went up last September,” he said. “The residency helped to keep me focused on my writing. And the play, Cake Ladies, gave me a way to place and process my grief.” Cake Ladies is a comedy that takes place in a community playhouse during an “AidsFest!” in Cedar Oak, Texas, as the town recovers from the second-largest drug-fueled HIV outbreak in smalltown America.
Beyond DTC and Actors, Norton’s work has been developed or produced by PlayPenn, the Black and Latino Playwrights Conference, African American Repertory Theatre, and many more. In 2016, his play Mississippi Goddamn won the Elizabeth Osborn Award and was a finalist for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award from the American Critics Association. Mississippi Goddamn is a historic drama that takes place in Jackson during the Civil Rights movement.
Now, he has more in his back pocket, including finishing a commission with a 12-person cast, intended for DTC’s talented ensemble of actors. “The company gives an excuse to write big-ass plays,” he said.
Between Christmas and New Year’s, I went to Deep Vellum’s bookstore on Commerce St., hoping to catch a glimpse of penny candy on the shelf myself. The shop was closed for the holiday week, but I still managed to soak in an eerily quiet sunset, 80 degrees in December, as the green glow of the Dallas skyline flipped on. I felt that Norton was there somewhere too.
Caroline Macon Fleischer (she/her) is a writer, editor, and theatremaker based in Chicago. She has worked with Lookingglass Theatre Company, Chicago Dramatists, Chicago Children’s Theatre, and more. Her first book, The Roommate, will be published by Joffe Books in 2022.
Creative credits for production photo: penny candy by Jonathan Norton, directed by Derrick Sanders, with costume design by Samantha C. Jones, scenic design by Courtney O’Neill, lighting design by Alan C. Edwards, sound design by Elisheba Ittoop, wig design by Cherelle Guyton, and video design by Sarah Harris
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