|NO PLACE TO BE SOMEBODY (1987)
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PRODUCER: JOSEPH STERN
ACTORS FOR THEMSELVES presents
NO PLACE TO BE SOMEBODY
by Charles Gordone
directed by Bill Duke
CAST (in order of appearance):
FRANKLYN SEALES as "Gabe Gabriel"
RON THOMPSON as "Shanty Mulligan"
TONY TODD as "Johnny Williams"
CRISTEN KAUFFMAN as "Dee Jacobson"
TANYA BOYD as "Evie Ames"
LYNNIE GODFREY as "Cora Beasley"
BENJAMIN JURAND as "Melvin Smelts"
LYNN CLARK as "Mary Lou Bolton"
TANNA HERR as "Ellen"
JULIUS W. HARRIS as "Sweets Crane"
VINCENT GUASTAFERRO as "Mike Maffucci"
RICHARD BURNS as "Louie"
ERWIN FULLER as "Judge Bolton"
JACK KEHLER as "Sergeant Cappaletti"
MARK GATES as "Harry"
UNDERSTUDIES: Ken Harris ("Gabe"), Brenda Miller
("Cora/Evie"), Richard Burns ("Shanty"),
Tanna Herr ("Mary Lou"), Mark Gates ("Melvin"), Douglas Stark ("Judge
Julius J. Carry III ("Johnny"), Anna Nicholas ("Dee")
SETTING: Johnny's Bar, New York City
TIME: The Not Too Distant Past
PHOTOS by I.C. Rapoport
Click on the photos to see them larger
L-R: Tony Todd & Franklyn Seales
L-R: Lynnie Godfrey,
Cristin Kauffman, Ron Thompson, Tony Todd & Tanya Boyd
L-R: Tanna Herr, Lynn Clark, Tony Todd, Cristen
Kauffman, Franklyn Seales,
Benjamin Jurand, Tanya Boyd, Julius W. Harris, Jack Kehler, Mark
Ronnie Thompson, Lynnie Godfrey, Richard Burns, Vinnie Gustafaro &
L.A. TIMES, Friday, July 4, 1987
This Revival of "Somebody" Is Something
By Sylvie Drake, Times Theater
What makes a play worth reviving? First, of course,
the quality of the play itself. Then the quality of the revival.
Eighteen years after the fact, Charles Gordone's
Pulitzer Prize-winning "No Place to Be Somebody" at the Matrix proves
one thing among many: that for once, the Pulitzer committee (whose
track record in this area has been far from illustrious) picked well.
Eighteen years after the smash success of the
original production at New York's Public Theatre (and then around the
country), this Actors for Themselves revival recovers it all,
including a member of the original cast (Ron Thompson, known then as
Ronnie) and another member of the national company that played Los
Angeles in 1970 (Julius W. Harris).
Both repeat their roles here with undiminished
gusto and alacrity. Beyond that, producer Joe Stern has given us a
revival that's up to AFT's usual high standards, with astute casting
(by Joanna Koehler), powerful direction (Bill Duke), a well-designed
bar-room set (Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio) and rich,
comical, often poetic performances. Stern brooks no compromise with
the full range of Gordone's three-act cornucopia of emotional jolts
that come at us like a St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
We're talking another bar-room play here, America's
favorite setting. But what you do with it—and in it—is what counts,
and Gordone does plenty. So much that one plot is not enough. It takes
two or three, nimbly threaded together, to give us the big picture.
On the face of it, "No Place" is an action piece.
Black tavern-owner and pimp Johnny Williams (Tony Todd) wants to
outwit the white Mafia that runs things in his New York City
neighborhood. He wants to be big cheese and he's depending on the
return from the slammer of his mentor and father figure Sweets Crane
(the wily, deadpan Harris) to provide the support and alliance he
believes he needs.
When Sweets gets out though, he's a tired and
detached old man with no interest in this game. Johnny goes it alone,
and not well.
The maze of subplots involves black and white
denizens of the bar—from Johnny's girl, a depressed white hooker named
Dee (Cristen Kauffman), and her street partner Evie (Tanya Boyd), to
the foolish white/liberal judge's daughter (Lynn Clark), who forces
her way into Johnny's life with enough benighted zeal to trigger the
disasters that cap the play.
This relationship, more than any other, brands "No
Place" as a period piece of the early '70s.
Everyone here has a dream. Dee would like to marry
Johnny, get out of the life. Big Mel, the busboy (Benjamin Durand),
would rather be dancing. Weasel-eyed Shanty (Thompson), the talentless
helper-outer, would rather be drumming. Cora Beasely (Lynnie Godfrey),
a regular, wants only to find herself a good man.
Itinerant actor and writer Gabe Gabriel (Franklyn
Scales, superb as the Gordone alter ego), would just like his life to
work out. He's the peripheral observer who ultimately plays the
pivotal hand in "No Place" and who begins (and sometimes ends) each
act with some of its most virtuosic speeches.
From the dripping sentimentality of Dee's
misbegotten life to the cops-and-robbers scenario of its main men, the
abundant humor and the poetic interstices that bridge the story,
Gordone leaves no turn unaccounted for. Evie connects smartly with an
IBM machine. Cora marries a heart specialist—"from Key-bee" ( "Orree
-vah-ree, y'all")—and we'll leave the rest of the tale untold and
As in 1970, one is struck by Gordone's
color-awareness that is so skillfully rooted in deliberate (and
accurate) colorblindness. Good guys and bad exist on both sides of the
racial divide. And some of Gordone's most telling speeches cover
subjects that might be considered racially sensitive (such as Cora's
lament about the dearth of good black males).
Again, the acting is compelling where it matters
most, adequate where it matters less. Scales, who rarely disappoints,
outdoes himself as the light-skinned black with complicated feelings
about what that means and a poet's capacity for articulation. Godfrey
is a knockout as the amusing Cora in an agile performance that teeters
just this side of being too broad.
There's tremendous power in Harris' laconic Sweets,
an aptly infuriating blandness to Clark's judge's daughter and healthy
doses of comedy mixed into the Godfrey-Thompson-Jurand sideshows.
Vincent Guastaferro is properly dense as Mafioso Mike Mafucci and Jack
Kehler properly untrustworthy as Judge Bolton.
It is precisely because this playwright is not
afraid to see life through the very wide lens of a very candid camera
that "No Place to Be Somebody," for all its overt histrionics and
blatant melodrama, achieves and retains the stature that it does. It
is, as it was, a vividly expressed adventure story enhanced by the
playwright's clear-eyed vision of life as he saw it.
It took Gordone seven years to write "No Place" and
he has not written another one since. Better one good play than 10
poor ones. We're told he's been working on another for the past three
years. We'll wait for as long as it takes.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, July 21, 1987
by Ed Kaufman
Watching Charles Gordone's powerful and moving
Pulitzer Prize-winning "No Place to Be Somebody" (written in 1967 and
first workshopped in the Circle in the Square) is something like
undergoing a deja vu experience. We've undergone the communal trauma
of social upheaval, assassinations and an unpopular war over the past
couple of decades, and the anxiety and angst of these events are
supposedly tucked away in the past. Still, watching Gordone ' s play
at the Matrix Theatre can only bring back vivid memories of some of
those issues and events that shaped American history.
As staged at the Matrix Theatre by Actors for
Themselves, the play is somewhere between poetry and melodrama as it
probes the issues and individuals that underlay the surfacing of black
consciousness in the late 1960s Gordone sees things straight-on, but
without the detachment of the historian or the distortion of the
politician. Gordone, as playwright, is both politician, poet and
moralist as he engages us in a play that's full of rage, wit and
ultimate dignity. And that applies to attitudes about blacks as well
Set in a sleazy bar in New York City (a fine set by
Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio), the locale resembles that of
Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life," which was also set in a barroom.
Only that's where the similarity stops. Saroyan's characters were
ultimately creatures of sentiment with a sort of whimsy about them
that harkened back to an American Dream that was still intact and we
were collectively innocent. What's more, it was still prior to the
U.S. involvement in World War II. Gordone's characters are much more
hip, street-wise, angry and confused. And while Saroyan could avoid
the external realities around him. Gordone has no choice but to
confront things with anger and pain, power and passion. And that's the
crux of "No Place to Be Somebody."
As narrator/Greek chorus there's aspiring
actor-novelist Gabe (an absolutely stunning performance by Franklin
Scales), who introduces each act (there are three) with some animated
and agitated poetry that expresses the times: the words of Cleaver and
King that tell the story of "The Passing of a People Dying hue That
New Life." Gabe is like the biblical Gabriel: the prophet of a new
consciousness. On the more human level there's the story of bar
operator Johnny (wonderfully portrayed b> Tony Todd), an angry black
who's afflicted with "Charlie Fever" (white man's aggressiveness). He
operates the bar and awaits the return from 1C years in prison of
Sweets Crane (f touching portrait by Julius W. Harris), who returns
ill and broken, and with a new insight into getting ahead in the
world. Sweets has come to peace about things, while Johnny is still
full of rage and wants his rightful piece of the action.
And into Johnny's Bar comes a list of colorful,
innocent, menacing and corrupt characters of all sizes, shapes and
colors. There's the tragic-story of white Dee (Cristen Kauffman) who
loves Johnny as well as hustling for him; there's street-smart black
hustler Evie (Tanya Boyd); there's Cora (Lynnie Godfrey), a character
out of Johnny's past. And there are a couple of naive white civil
rights workers fresh out of college (Lynn Clark and Tanna Herr); the
white Italian Mafia (Vincent Guastaferro), a corrupt white judge
(Erwin Fuller) and a couple of local cops. Working in the bar arc
white Shanty (a fine portrayal by Ron Thompson), who aspires to be a
jazz drummer, and black Mel (another first-rate performance by
Benjamin Jurand), who aspires to be a classical dancer.
Credit Bill Duke with the sensitive direction,
which runs (he gamut from being rowdy and raucous to touching and
tender - with just about every cross current in-between. Sandi Love
created the colorful '60s costumes, and Jon Gottlieb did the sound
LOS ANGELES HERALD EXAMINER, Friday,
July 24, 1987
Can't live 'No Place' without their dreams
Somebodies make play really shine
By Richard Stayton, Herald theater critic
It is a rare privilege to witness the realization
of a creative career. To be present when all the years of hard work,
discipline and self-sacrifice finally come together is an exquisite
feeling. Such is the honor and joy with Franklyn Seales in "No Place
to Be Somebody" at the Matrix Theater
Seales has long been a mainstay of local legit
stages. From the Odyssey to Los Angeles Theater Center, he's worked
energetically in plays as diverse as Sondheim's "The Frogs" and
"Hamlet." But generally the acting techniques showed through the
characters. In a realistic role, his classical training would exhibit
itself. In a classic role, his film and television techniques would
conflict with the high style. These problems were always minor But in
the character of Gabe Gabriel, he has found a role that unifies his
opposing selves. Seales the actor has at last become Somebody.
But Seales is not the only reason to see this
production A gifted and supportive cast surrounds him.
However, there's a reason why "No Place to Be
Somebody" is rarely presented and why playwright Charles Gordone has
never had any other plays produced. Forget its 1970 Pulitzer Prize for
drama. (That award has overlooked many historically significant and
influential plays while rewarding numerous mediocrities) "No Place to
Be Somebody" is the perfect actors' workshop vehicle, giving all
performers an opportunity to exhibit their talents, no matter what the
story might demand.
Not for nothing is this an Actors for Themselves
production There are sizzling monologues and heartbreaking
confessions, guns and switchblades, sex and scandal There is
altogether too much happening for a stage to believably contain
without contrivance But when the cast is this fine, plot becomes a
minor issue. If the play's not there, let 'em play!
Gabe Gabriel Is part myth, part man. The Gabe is
the frustrated street poet who pecks away at a typewriter and hangs
out at Johnny's bar. The Gabriel is the "sanctified and holy" black
visionary who introduces each act with an inspired poetic sermon
During these epiphanies, Scales speaks with the rapturous voice of an
evangelist warning of the fire next time. Once his hypnotic
introductions sizzle to completion, he vanishes.
And then we're in Johnny's New York City basement
bar in "the not too distant past." (The perfectly pitched environment
is thanks to the underappreciated design team of Deborah Raymond and
Johnny (Tony Todd) has a few interests other than
his liquor profits, in particular two prostitutes named Evie (a lush,
evocative Tanya Boyd) and Dee (a fuming, poignant Cristen Kauffman). A
tall, handsome, angry but charismatic black man (Todd inhabits the
role with a beautiful vengeance), Johnny has ambitions beyond this
seedy environment. He wants to control the numbers racket. Toward that
goal, Johnny is eagerly awaiting the return from prison of his mentor,
Sweets Crane (Julius W. Harris).
"Me and Sweets," vows Johnny, "are gonna getta
piece of this town "
In the meantime, we wait and sip from the acting
cocktail: a mix of "Iceman Cometh," "Amen Corner, "Cheers" and "Kojak."
There's also a dash of "On the Waterfront" and a shot of "The Man With
the Golden Arm." It's a heady alcoholic hit that obscures all analysis
Shanty Mulligan (an appropriately offbeat
performance by Ron Thompson) is the loyal bartender who keeps a pair
of drumsticks In his pants. A white man who wishes he were black,
Shanty is counting on the earnings from his girlfriend Cora (a fine
Lynnie Godfrey) to help "get me my drums."
Another dreamer Is the short-order cook Melvin
Smells (a sweet, hilarious performance by Benjamin Jurandi. Built like
a pro football lineman. Melvin nevertheless prefers to practice his
ballet moves across the bar room floor.
When an attractive white activist demonstrating for
civil rights Just "happens" to stop Into the bar for a drink, Johnny
discovers she's Judge Bolton's daughter. Faster than you can say "not
the Judge Bolton!" Johnny has seduced Mary Lou (an
appropriately gullible and underplayed Lynn Clark), corrupted her into
stealing her father's files on the Mafia and sent her out into the
streets to sell her body.
Rejected, dejected and delirious hooker Dee's true
love for Johnny destroys her. She falls apart faster than you can say
Blanche DuBois, overdosing on drugs and finally vomiting up her life.
In a horrifically gut-wrenching performance, Kauffman babbles
incoherently while spreading black shoe polish over her face. Her
desperation doesn't move the cold hearted, coolly calculating Johnny.
"The worst sickness that a man can have is the
white man's fever" becomes the message. But Johnny won't listen to
anyone, especially after Sweets arrives looking like a derelict,
broken by prison. (As Sweets Harris is a small masterpiece of
underplaying.) Even more than be fore, Johnny's going to fight tin
Mafia, the courts, his women. Ins friends. "I got a right to my own
name!" he cries, but in the pursuit of power Johnny loses everything,
including his soul.
Right about here playwright Gordone tosses in the
white power structure — the judge, protected by a detective and an
ominous policeman drops by — and the underworld (the mob also pays a
visit). And right about here the play loses most, if not all. of its
believability. But what rises from the ashes, thanks in part to
director Bill Duke's skillful indulgence of the player's best traits,
is Gordone's lyrical language.
"There's more to being black than meets the eye,"
says Gabriel during one of his spellbinding soliloquies Then he
dissolves into good old Gabe sipping a drink and watching the bar's
denizens sink into oblivion. But for Seales, he's finally found the
place to be all that he can be.
PASS PROFILE: BILL DUKE
This profile of "No Place To Be
Somebody" director Bill Duke was written by Matrix staff and published
in a newsletter for Matrix patrons.
Ask Bill Duke what it's like to direct 15 actors at
one time and he'll answer, "Impossible. Totally and completely
impossible." He's quick to add, however, "We're all just one, big,
happy family. It's an incredibly rewarding, creative experience."
Duke, actor, director and writer, is currently directing Charles
Gordone's No Place To Be Somebody at the Matrix.
As an actor Duke has appeared in such films as
American Gigolo, Car Wash, Commando, and the recently released
Predator starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. His TV acting credits
include the series Palmerstown, U.S.A. His directing credits
include The Secret Place at LAAT and Jazz Set at the
Mark Taper Forum. In 1980 he studied film directing at the American
Film Institute and subsequently directed the critically acclaimed
feature film The Killing Floor. He's also directed numerous TV
shows including Knotts Landing, HBO pilots and
He feels that No Place To Be Somebody
"really deals with those factors that underlie the very pillars of
racism. Gordone has the courage to approach not only racism, but
classism, on a very direct and courageous level and has described it
through individuals that are believable. Gordone dissects human beings
and enables you to understand why each character does what he or she
does and, hopefully, through that process the audience comes out
thinking differently about these people and the world. He shows that
no matter how the surface looks, no matter how different someone
looks, underneath there are so many human similarities we can relate
to that we have more in common than we have in difference."
For the future Duke plans to continue his acting
and directing careers and "creating my own production entity so I can
employ people whose work I respect and, thereby, be in a position to
really create the kinds of projects that are important and
entertaining but reflect more of my way of thinking about things." He
concluded, "My real hope is that at some point in my lifetime there
will be a greater appreciation on the part of all of us of this
incredibly beautiful planet God has given us and that there will be a
greater mutual appreciation of each other on all of our physical,
mental and spiritual levels."
Friday, July 17, 1987
Gordone's Win, 'Place' and Shows
by Janice Arkatov
In 1970, playwright Charles Gordone won a Pulitzer
Prize for "No Place to Be Somebody"—and died.
Spiritually, that is.
"I died into a new life," said the dapper
61-year-old writer/director, recently in town to look in on rehearsals
for a revival of "No Place," which opens tonight at the Matrix. "After
I wrote that play, there was a death moment. It was over. It was
purged. Then I proceeded to live again.
"The celebrity disease? I had that. Anyone who's
ever had a hand in Hollywood or Broadway does. It's all around you.
But I walked away."
And kept walking. Since his early success with "No
Place," Gordone has not produced another play, devoting most of his
time to teaching and directing. (In August, he is off to join the
theater faculty at Texas A&M University.) His own studies began at Los
Angeles City College in the '40s, where he "was the only person of
color in the department.
"I was studying everything anybody else was:
Shakespeare, Strindberg, Pirandello; I was very much grounded in the
classics. But every time I was cast in a show, it was in a
stereotypical role. After a while, I rebelled: I refused to play
insignificant, 'utility' parts."
Gordone wrote an article in the school paper, met
with the department head—and things changed. "They began to cast me in
roles that were logical, historical and substantial. I'm too small to
play Othello, but I played him anyway."
He is still tampering with unorthodox casting. For
five years, Gordone directed the Berkeley-based American Stage—"which
it truly was. Not all white, not all black.
"We did 'Night of the Iguana,' 'Of Mice and Men,'
'Streetcar Named Desire.' See, I come out of New Orleans, and I don't
know many folks in the French Quarter. A lot of people have suggested
that Williams wanted to write the part of Stanley as a black man, but
at the time it just wasn't cool.
"So I cast a fair-skinned Creole in the role—black
enough to insult Blanche. And audiences accepted it very well. It's
all how you cast it. Blacks are just as splintered in terms of type,
color, hue, background. [The color choice] is not for shock value. I
don't believe in that— or blind casting, where there's no regard for
the person's ethnicity. I would never cast a blond woman with black
Gordone is especially sensitive to blacks in
academe: the notion of quotas, of letting blacks slip through with
inferior grades, black studies that promote separatism. "When they
come out of college, blacks should be able to fit into the community,
not be schizophrenic, paranoid about their color. There's nothing
wrong with saying, 'I come from Africa.' But if you want people to
respect you, they've got to respect you as a human being, not as a
black human being or a white human being."
There is no hostility in Gordone's words. But there
used to be.
"Oh, indeed," he said. "Certainly, when I wrote 'No
Place,' I was very hostile. I was in a play in New York City, the
original company of Jean Genet's The Blacks'—with Cecily Tyson, James
Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Roscoe Lee Browne, Maya Angelou. Everyone
was angry in the '60s, and all the writers of color reflected that:
the anger of the civil rights movement.
"After Martin Luther King [Jr.] died, things just
piddled away. It was very placid in the '70s—then the conservatives
came in in the '80s, and in many ways we're right back where we
started in the '60s."
He said that "No Place" (set in a New York bar,
with a mix of black and white characters) reflects America's ongoing
"problem with race—but does not deal with race per se. It's bandied
about, but principally the play deals with Identity, the quest for it.
"My new play ["Roan Brown and Cherry," which he has
been working on for five years] is much more Chekhovian, more
psychologically real. Again, race is not an issue. It's just there—a
subtle, underlying fact."
In spite of his affection for "No Place," Gordone
said the time has probably come when he will stop playing watchful
parent. (Over the years, he figured he has visited at least 200
regional and college productions of his work.) "It's just a way of
protecting your child. Now the play is 18 years old. I don't think you
ever really step away, because it's a part of you. But it came out of
a certain period in my life, long ago and far away. So now it's on to
Bigger and Better."
Under the Pulitzer's shadow?
Gordone sighed. "You do have the feeling that
everything you write doesn't seem good or better. I don't know how
other people handle it. I went through a whole psychological period of
saying, 'Forget about that: Just write as you are now. Stop trying to
remember what you did, what aroused people then.' You've just got to
do your best, and that's it. But yeah, a Pulitzer on your first
play—it was like, 'Wow! Really?' Most people write for years before
they get one. How'd it happen? I don't try to figure those things out
Gordone, you see, has become a man at peace with
"I consider myself a consummate theater person," he
said simply. "I've lived a life in the theater; if I don't know
anything about it now, I never will. So yes, I'm very confident about
that. I can hold my own with anybody in the theater—I have that
A tough guy? "I was. But that's .part of the
rejuvenation of Charles Gordone. Once you have confidence, you no
longer have to defend it with a hard veneer. You don't have to go
around tooting your horn, having to fight for who you are. You just
are. You have to accept yourself, love yourself. I think I'm a gas."
DRAMA-LOGUE, July 16-22, 1987
His 'Place To Be Somebody':
Playwright Charles Gordone
by F. Kathleen Foley
theatre has done a lot to bring a consciousness to this country that
the black experience is a reality but there is more to it."
The time was 1969. The era of civil rights had been
ushered in. The Age of Aquarius had begun. The country's rising
dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War had found voice in a burgeoning
student activist movement. There were race riots in our major cities.
It was a period of turbulence and change, of rage mingled with
exhilarant hope. There was frustration but there was also an
underlying sense of the individual's power to effect change.
In this environment, Charles Gordone's No Place
to Be Somebody exploded onto the off-Broadway scene with a force
that shook the theatrical firmament. Gordone's epic melange, first
produced professionally by Joe Papp and the New York Shakespeare
Festival, was the first off-Broadway play to win the Pulitzer Prize.
It was also the first play by a black to earn the award. The play, set
in a seedy New York bar teeming with the black and white denizens of
the city's underworld, reflects the jumbled, shifting mood of the era
in which it was written.
Now, as a test of its universality and endurance, a
major revival of Gordone's drama is currently being mounted at the
Matrix Theatre by Actors for Themselves, the same group that gave us
last season's highly successful version of Simon Gray's The Common
Pursuit. Gordone, a slender, vital man in his 60s who looks years
younger than his age, was in town recently to publicize this latest
production of his work.
Although No Place to Be Somebody has been
hailed as a "black drama" and anthologized as such, Gordone is leery
of the term. "No Place is not a race play." Gordone states
firmly. "It is the story of power, about somebody who is stifled who
was born in a subculture and feels the only way out is through the
"When I wrote No Place, I wanted to show an
American experience and not have it labeled. Black theatre has done a
lot to bring a consciousness to this country that the black experience
is a reality but there is more to the black experience. You have no
business being an all-white or an all-black anything. It paints you in
a comer because we already have a, quote, 'all-white theatre,' it
doesn't call itself that. So. if you call yourself an 'all-black
theatre.' you always stand in reaction to rather than giving a
response to the situation. You must respond to whatever problem you
have, not just react to it. The writer of color in this country must
reflect all forms of isolation, segregation and prejudice.
"When I wrote this play, I tried to show a piece of
life in New York City. A lot of terrible things happen in New York and
no one is exempt from them, no one is isolated. In New York City,
everybody is from Harlem. You cannot escape the A-train. We just had
an example of that with the Goetz case, which is typical of and
symbolic of the problems New York City has — but the problem is a
global one. No Place to Be Somebody is one aspect of an
In addition to his writing, Gordone has also
directed extensively but he began his career as an actor in an era
when opportunities were sadly limited for black performers. Raised in
Elkhart, Indiana, Gordone moved to Los Angeles where, after a stint in
the Air Force, he enrolled in Los Angeles City College.
"The call had always been for me to be an actor."
Gordone recalls. "When I went into the drama department at Los Angeles
City College, there was only one other person of color. I was lost
there. Even though I was studying everything, including the classics,
that the other students were, when it came lime to cast me in any of
the plays. I was always cast in subservient or stereotypical roles. I
wasn't going for that. I began to think in terms of 'Why shouldn't I
do Shakespeare, Ibsen. Strindberg, Pirandello? Why couldn't I do roles
in which I was cast logically, that anyone could play?
"Here I was in this drama department saying 'Dinner
is served,' or playing roles like Cal in The Little Foxes or
Blossom in The Hasty Heart. So I wrote an article in t he
school newspaper stating my views. The article raised a little stink
because Los Angeles City College was considered to be a kind of
liberal school. Dr. Ken Carmichael. who was the head of the drama
department, called me in to his office. We talked at length and he saw
my point. Pretty soon, they began to cast me in roles that were
logical and historically applicable."
His early experience of the inequities of the
casting process awakened in Gordone what he calls his raison d'etre,
his desire to spearhead change and open up alternative casting
choices for minority performers. In 1982, Gordone, along with his
associate Susan Kouyomjian, founded in Berkeley, California the
American Stage, an organization devoted to the principles of
non-traditional casting. His productions there included A Streetcar
Named Desire with a Creole in the role of Stanley, Of Mice and
Men, with two Chicanos playing George and Lenny and The Night
of the Iguana, with a black in the lead role of Shannon.
"I didn't cast arbitrarily," says Gordone. "I cast
people in roles which were logical. You must give a great deal of
thought in your casting so that you don't insult the work's integrity.
You don't want to spoil the playwright's play. But it was amazing how
the innovative casting enhances the plays. The casting makes them so
exciting that it's almost like you're seeing them for the first time.
"I didn't overtly say, 'Well, this is going to be
my thing, to begin to provide more opportunities for black, Hispanic
and Asian actors, but it is now very much my thing. As a matter of
fact, in September I'm joining the faculty of Texas A & M University
where I will work in their recruitment program to bring more blacks
and Hispanics into their speech communications and theatre arts
After college. Gordone moved to New York to pursue
his acting career. "Hollywood just didn't offer any opportunities." he
says. "I did get in SAG; it was my first union. I did stunt work and I
played Indians and Orientals."
Within two months of his arrival in New York,
Gordone was cast in his first Broadway show. Moss Hart's The
Climate of Eden. It was the first of many Broadway and
off-Broadway productions for the versatile young actor. Gordone later
went on to appear in the original New York production of Jean Genet's
The Blacks off-Broadway, which played a record 1,408
performances and starred the likes of James Earl Jones. Cecily Tyson,
Lou Gossett and other black actors who have since gone on to make
names for themselves in their profession. Gordone, fittingly, found
himself in the vanguard of a growing black intellectual movement.
"I began to get in politically with a lot of people
on the Broadway scene." says Gordone. "I began to get really intense
about the theatre situation there. We began to get the low rumbles of
how disgruntled black actors were. I began to move with the young
black actors of the period, all the ones who are known now. We began
to have a lot of conversations, sitting around at parties or at
gatherings, about 'What are we going to do?'
"We established what was called, at that time, the
Committee for the Employment of Negro Performers. We picketed all up
and down Broadway, trying to educate the unions and set an agenda.
Everybody was completely opposed to us. White actors were frightened
because they thought we were going to take jobs from them. We tried to
explain to them it would create more jobs for everybody."
Frustration with the lack of challenging roles for
blacks led Gordone into playwriting. "1 thought I would take matters
into my own hands," he says.
No Place, which was five years in the
writing, was finished in 1967. ( The Matrix production marks the 20th
anniversary of the play.) Unfortunately, despite the fact he had
shopped the play all over New York and directed a successful showcase
at the Sheridan Square Theatre. Gordone initially had trouble finding
a producer. "I was a madman," he says with a laugh. "We had spent
every dime putting this thing together. I had written this and really
put my guts into it and nobody wanted it." Gordone fled to Woodstock
to lick his wounds. Then came the phone call from Joe Papp. The rest
is history. The play ran for a year at Papp's Public Theatre, moved
uptown for another long run, then later toured extensively throughout
much of the '70s.
Gordone's No Place to Be Some body had
obviously touched some chord in the national psyche. "There's a
phoenix ending in No Place, an anabiosis, a feeling you will
die into that new life," Gordone says. "After the '60s.
And also, in No Place, I'm predicting my own spiritual death
because I couldn't write a play of the same genre. I'd written
"I'm not a prolific writer. It takes me a while,
because I'm not a writer per se. I'm a theatre person who writes, acts
and directs. After you get the Pulitzer Prize, you get a lot of calls,
spend a lot of time in the limelight. It has its effect on you,
although you don't feel it until years later. Then, you have the long
struggle battling yourself. In other words, you think every time you
sit down at a typewriter, you're writing a Pulitzer Prize. You're
always competing with yourself and you have to write something that's
as good or better.
"And I had my bout with alcoholism. I had to get a
spiritual awakening in some way. Thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous and
people who were in my corner, I was able to whip that — but that was
an experience in and of itself. To try and write without a bottle...
you always think you're going to get the muse out of the bottle and
you're not. You just... well, I won't get into all that. But the
struggle is then to write sober-minded and that takes some time.
"When you're writing you say, 'That's not it,
that's not it,' because you're so used to writing under the influence.
Or you think that in order to get the creative juices going, you've
got to have two or three belts. Then you've got to have two or three
belts to rewrite— and before you know it, you're going through a quart
a day. You've got to want to get sober. I had to examine how badly I
wanted to live, how badly I wanted to do something with my life. Where
did I begin? And where did I lose it? Those things are worth writing
about. Once you begin to assume, grab hold of responsibility for your
own life —that's one of the most marvelous things we can rediscover!"
Charles Gordone has spent the last few months
finishing up his latest play in the pristine mountain setting of the
D.H. Lawrence Ranch, an artists' colony outside Taos, New Mexico. A
veteran of the creative wars, both personal and professional, Gordone
maintains an infectious energy and humor, seasoned by the knowledge of
an old campaigner. "We are all, in America, trying to find someplace
to be," he says. "And one day, this country will have its spiritual
awakening. We have the tools, we have everything at our fingertips;
it's just a question of time. Hopefully. I will see it in my time."
A pair of personal letters from playwright Charles Gordone -
one addressed to the cast and crew, the other a
personal missive to producer Joseph Stern.
Set & Lighting Design - DEBORAH RAYMOND DORIAN
Costume Design - SANDI LOVE
Sound Design - JON GOTTLIEB
Production Stage Manager - MICHAEL CURTIS
Casting - JOANNE KOEHLER
Production Coordinator - DARSIE MARIE
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