Local Writer Provides ‘Penny For Your Thoughts’

How do you tell a story of war and home? In stories like these, our distance from the characters is so small, figuring out “the good guys” from “the bad guys” requires a microscope, or a mirror. In the world premiere of Dallas Theater Center’s “penny candy” by writer-in-residence Jonathan Norton running through July 14 at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theater, we are shown how the drug war affected Dallas neighborhood Pleasant Grove in the late 1980's.

A father, Dubba-J (played with a delicate sensitivity by Leon Brown) is trying to make a living operating a candy shop out of a one-bedroom apartment. But his wife, Laura Mae (played by Liz Mikel, displaying her tremendous range) is concerned about the neighborhood as drug dealers have set up shop at the corner near the store. Here is where our first moral conundrum is presented: the dealers spend a lot of money at the store, so what do you do? And what if we find out later a big reason they do so is that they are waiting out the cops that patrol the neighborhood?

Next we meet the machete wielding leader of the dealers, Kingston (the always remarkable Ace Anderson). While he seems sincere in his early commitment to try to keep Dubba-J and his family safe, which includes Dubba-J and Laura Mae’s young son Jon-Jon (played by an impressive Esau Price), his first appearance with the machete reminds us that the drug business is regulated by unwritten rules and violence.

In Johann Hari’s breathtaking work on the drug war “Chasing the Scream”, he writes: “It is a natural human instinct to turn our fears into symbols, and destroy the symbols, in the hope that it will destroy the fear.” While Dubba-J and his family have “moved on up” to Red Oak, their friends in Pleasant Grove want Kingston and his crew out, and the store’s neighbor Nicole (Tiana Kaye Johnson) has started a petition to demand the apartment management kick him out.

Things get complicated and bloody when a rival gang tries to move in, and an innocent bystander gets shot. So now which symbol do the residents of Pleasant Grove try to destroy? The local dealers, or the new gang? So our next moral issue is, as Kingston puts it making his case: “I’m the devil you know.”

You’ll have to see the play yourself, which I highly recommend, to see how the characters come to grips with their situation. The storytelling and pace are a wonder to behold. Each of the characters’ arcs are fraught with conflict but still let their humanity shine through.

If there is any weakness in this play, it is in Tiana Kaye Johnson’s character Nicole. Often playing opposite a powerful performance by Claudia Logan as Kingston’s lieutenant and Nicole’s childhood friend Rose, Johnson’s character seemed to lack the depth and emotional resonance the play calls for. Of special note in the play however, is the use of television recordings from the era. This helps us not only see how the characters react to being in something much bigger than they imagined, but also shows the sad repetition we see today of the effect of prohibition on marginalized communities.

Walter Cronkite once said “I cannot help but wonder how many more lives, and how much more money will be wasted before [we admit] what is plain for all to see: the war on drugs is a failure.” In “penny candy” we see the waste of this war first hand in its effects on people’s lives, hopes and community. It shows us the cost of this war, how it brings out the worst in us, and how ludicrous is that any side in this war are “the good guys” with easy answers.

[ This review originally appeared at KatyTrailWeekly.com]

Originally published at http://quodlibertas.wordpress.com on June 20, 2019.



Above average dancer.

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