Charles Gordone 1925-1995
Gordone is best known for his 1969 play, No Place to Be Somebody, the first drama by an African American writer to win a Pulitzer prize and the first play ever to win the prize before being produced on Broadway. Critics have praised the work for its characterization and dialogue as well as its depiction of the rage, despair, and dignity that comprise the human condition for both blacks and whites. In an interview Gordone identified the "American experience" as the source of his works. "I don't write out of a black experience or a white experience; it's American. If my color happens to be different from someone else's, that doesn't make any difference. I write for whites just as well as I write for blacks. I write out of the American experience as I observe it and as I live it, and I would not like to chop it up."
Gordone was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised in Elkhart, Indiana. He once described himself as a mixture of races, "part Indian, part French, part Irish, and part nigger." He recounted that his family was considered black but lived in a white area. Despite academic and athletic success in high school, he stated, upon graduation he was "run outa town, not by white people, but by my own people, black people, because I tried to date a black girl." He studied at UCLA for one semester before completing a tour of duty in the U.S. air force. He then studied music at Los Angeles City College and eventually pursued drama at Los Angeles State College, from which he earned a bachelor's degree in 1952. After college Gordone went to New York City to pursue an acting career. He obtained roles in numerous plays on and off Broadway, winning an Obie award for his performance in an all-black production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. During the 1950s Gordone founded his own theater, Vantage, in Queens. There and elsewhere he continued to direct and produce, as well as write, plays throughout his life. Gordone died in 1995.
No Place to Be Somebody is Gordone's most acclaimed work. It was composed over a seven-year period, during which it was rewritten six times. It opened in May 1969 at Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater and later returned for an unlimited engagement. In December 1969 it moved to the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA) and then to the Promenade the following month. In total, the play received 903 New York performances, followed by regional tours. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, it received the 1970 New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Vernon Rice Award. No Place to Be Somebody is set in New York City and centers on Johnny Williams, a bar owner and small-time crook who is embittered by the treatment blacks have received from whites and who dreams of organizing a black mafia. Several sub-plots involve such characters as Sweets Crane, an old gangster who is reduced to picking pockets after his release from prison; the black militant Machine Dog, and the talentless drummer Shanty Mulligan. Each of the play's three acts opens with a monologue by Gabe Gabriel, an unemployed light-skinned actor. Johnny's overwhelming hatred of whites precipitates the play's catastrophe, a shoot-out that results in several deaths, including Johnny's own.
Critical reaction to No Place to Be Somebody was overwhelmingly favorable. Walter Kerr hailed Gordone as "the most astonishing new American playwright to come along since Edward Albee," and others compared him to Eugene O'Neill. Reviewers praised Gordone's evocation of compassion, excitement, and what Edith Oliver described as "the sense of life and intimacy of people in a place." Critics—along with Gordone himself—also noted the play's relation to the traditions of Greek, Elizabethan, and Jacobean drama. Despite the generally favorable notices, some critics observed that the play has some flaws. Ross Wetzsteon declared the work a "huge, sprawling, shapeless mess of a play, slopped all over the stage with appalling carelessness." He conceded, however, that Gordone's energy "virtually grabs the audience by the throat, lifts it into the air, and slams it against the wall." John Simon found No Place to Be Somebody a "typical protest play" and faulted the plot, characterization and dialogue: "[Gordone] has tried to cram at least three plays into one; his characters, especially the white ones, tend to be shmata if not automata; his dialogue, though sometimes juicy, often deteriorates downward into banality or upward into grandiloquence." In Catherine Hughes's view, however, the play's strengths more than make up for its shortcomings. "No Place to Be Somebody vibrates with a kind of vitality all too seldom found on contemporary stages," she wrote. "It may sprawl; it may on occasion become self-indulgent or sentimental; it never bores. It is alive."