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...
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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 foundNo 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."
A Little More Light Around the Place [adaptator, with Sidney Easton; from Easton's novel of the same name] 1964
No Place to Be Somebody: A Black-Black Comedy 1967
Willy Bignigga 1970
Gordone Is a Muthah 1970
The Last Chord 1977
A Qualification for Anabiosis 1978; revised as Anabiosis, 1979
Clive Barnes (review date 5 May 1969)
SOURCE: A Review of No Place to Be Somebody, in The New York Times, 5 May 1969, p. 53.
[No Place to Be Somebody was written in 1967 and received several workshop performances before it debuted on 4 May 1969 in a production by the New York Shakespeare Festival at their Public Theater. In the following assessment of that production, Barnes expresses reservations about the play's construction but greatly admires the vivid dialogue and realistic acting and sets.]
The New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater is more than just a complex name—it is a complex complex. Apart from Shakespeare in the Park and all that, a new theater in preparation in the Lafayette Street home, where, of course, the Florence Anspacher Theater is situated, there is also the Other Stage.
This, at the bottom of the Lafayette Street building, is the experimental wing of the Shakespeare Festival, and, with the help of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, it tries out new plays on weekends. The Other Stage has now discovered No Place to Be Somebody, a play by the black playwright Charles Gordone and the first to move from workshop status to a regular run as part of the Public Theater's programing.
Rather too long and certainly too episodic for its own good, I found that No Place to Be Somebody, despite a few flagging patches, was an engrossing play. In form and style it is a 30's gangster play. Then it would have been about the Lower East Side, it would have been made into a movie by Warner Bros. and the movie would have starred James Cagney and Pat O'Brien.
But now the hero, Johnny, is black—and he is in the rackets, or so it seems, for reasons of political activism. This is the best way he can get back at the whites. In the 30's such motivation would have seemed farfetched, but now it is merely tragic.
In fact, Johnny is only a small-time crook—a little pimping for the most part—and his activities are seriously curtailed by the Mafia. He dreams of the day when an old gangster, Sweets Crane, a father figure to him, will be released from the pen, so that they can make bad together on the big time. Sweets is released, but the old spirit has gone, and he is reduced to a little token pickpocketing.
But Johnny perseveres and decides to take on the Mafia alone. Eventually he is put down by bad luck, a crooked judge, police corruption and Mafia hoodlums. The same kind of thing used to happen to Bogart, Robinson and Muni in the good old days.
The play holds the interest, but what is really rewarding is the vigor of the writing and language. Witty, salty and convincing, the dialogue brings Johnny's West Village bar to vivid life, and Mr. Gordone can create characters.
Johnny—played superbly well by Nathan George as an object study in uptight relaxation and unflinchingly tragic destiny—emerges as someone completely credible, and so does Gabe Gabriel, the narrator and link-man of the story. Gabe is the nearly white actor and playwright who finds himself becoming blacker than black in bis search for identity. But he is also the spokesman for black moderation, and together with a white barman who eventually realizes that he will achieve nothing by making himself into a pretend-black out of guilt, the only hopeful aspect of a play full of bleak action.
The construction of the play is a little weird. Not only is the playwright-narrator given soliloquies on the black position—and like the entire role these are done brilliantly by Ron O'Neal, another remarkably powerful actor—but a figure called Machine Dog, a black militant, occasionally wanders through the action like the ghost of Hamlet's father. However, Ted Cornell's staging is so firm and precise that this matters less than it might have.
What I especially liked about the staging was its physical preciseness. When a man drank in one draft an almost full tumbler of bourbon, his eyes almost popped out with the effort, and when a man was knocked down or shot, the realism of the acting was most commendable. I admired also Mr. Cornell's use of Michael Davidson's persuasive setting of a seedy Village bar. In the intermission one was almost tempted to sit down at one of the tables and order a drink.
The acting was taut and punchy. I have already mentioned Mr. George and Mr. O'Neal. Other performances of real quality came from Susan Pearson as a white hooker, Ronnie Thompson as the pathetic little bartender, Marge Eliot as the black girl who loves him, Walter Jones as the broken-down gangster and Paul Benjamin as the black militant. There are few better casts than this on or off Broadway. If Mr. Gordone has got another play in him, it will awaited with interest.
Molly Haskell (review date 8 May 1969)
SOURCE: A Review of No Place to Be Somebody, in The Village Voice, 8 May 1969, p. 40.
[In the following appraisal of the premiere of No Place to Be Somebody, Haskell finds the play an "interesting, if not always successful patchwork of styles " but claims it is "as messy and convulsive as the muddy truths it deals with. "]
The walls that everybody was up against are crumbling like plaster, and it is a messy, degrading, convulsive thing, because sometimes it is easier to be up against the wall and know where you're at than to be no place with a few options, however fuzzy, to be somebody. Charles Gordone's play, No Place to be Somebody, is a sprawling, searching play, as messy and convulsive as the muddy truths it deals with, and as multiple in message-styles as there are shades of gray.
Under Ted Cornell's direction, it is long, alive, formless, and diffuse, its formlessness making it difficult to cut since there are no contours to follow, but enabling it to pursue the consequences of black ambivalence in ways that are equivocal and adventurous.
The setting is a West Village bar, a black side, backslide Saroyan-and-O'Neill bar, a place in which ethnic identity is a straight jacket and self-revelation turns in on itself in slow death. The dialectical tension between black and black, the sado-masochism between black and white, become—or perhaps always were—an extension of the irreconcilable duality, within the black, between racial and individual identity. Characters are in various stages of assimilation, accommodation, and spiritual decomposition from a soul-eating poison called Mr. Charley fever, and, in a weird mixture of metaphor and melodrama, the bar itself is preyed upon and finally swallowed up by the Mafia.
The proprietor is Johnny Williams, a black with an easy manner and razor-sharp reflexes, who has "operated" himself out of Harlem and into the Village. He is waiting for Sweets, his spiritual father, to get out of prison and team up with him again. But when Sweets, purged both of hope and ego, offers true spiritual redemption, Johnny turns it down. Their relationship is full of taut, gentle images—the old man sweeping the floor, eating his chitterlings, offering his self-abasement, and regaining an impossible innocence before he dies. Gabe Gabriel is the barely-black intellectual, by nature witness rather than activist. He draws on an autobiography which is sometimes his own, sometimes collective, and he survives to mourn the death of the "black and profane soul" to which he could never quite lay claim. Shanty Mulligan is a white drummer, the only one who can really let go, and thereby get back to his soul. The male-female relationships are more simplistic and less convincing than the intricate male ones. The men and women are seen purely and overtly in terms of neurotic needs, in the vocabulary of analysis rather than feeling.
The production is colorful, the play an interesting, if not always successful patchwork of styles. Along with a gangland plot, serving the sometimes opposing interests of narrative flow and sociological thrust, is a strange mixture of psychological realism and Brechtian commentary, and black power rhetoric seen alternately as parody, passion, and dream.
Most of the acting is extaordinary. Ron O'Neal is beautiful as Gabe, a stalking spirit and terribly funny in his quiet humorlessness. Nathan George's Johnny Williams is a man to die for. The other most memorable creations are Ronnie Thompson's Shanty Mulligan, and Henry Baker as a fantastically touching Popeye of a black dancer and ingenuous idealist.
Time (review date 16 May 1969)
SOURCE: "Bar Stool in Black Hell," in Time, Vol. 93, 16 May 1969, pp. 85-6.
[In this review, the critic detects elements of melodrama in No Place to Be Somebody but concedes that "the drama ticks with menace and, for such an abrasive subject, is unexpectedly and explosively funny. "]
Here is a black panther of a play. No Place to Be Somebody stalks the off-Broadway stage as if it were an urban jungle, snarling and clawing with uninhibited fury at the contemporary fabric of black-white and black-black relationships.
The milieu is virtually the message, and playwright Charles Gordone knows it like the black of his hand. The setting is a small West Village bar. If one imagines a corrosively militant Saroyan writing a play called The Time of Your Death, the atmospherics of the place will be grasped immediately. But "Johnny's Bar" is no oasis for gentle day-dreamers. It is a foxhole of the color war—full of venomous nightmares, thwarted aspirations and trigger-quick tempers, a place where the napalm of hurt has seared each man's skin. The jukebox rumbles with hard rock; a dopeaddled white simp serves drinks when he is not rattling drumsticks along the bar in a syncopated frenzy.
This hell away from hell is run by Johnny Williams (Nathan George), a black pimp who is as cold and dangerous as a switchblade. His whores saunter in and out between tricks, and the white one loves him. Johnny wants to challenge the Mafia, which is crimping his style, by assembling a "Black Mafia" to rule his own turf. An ex-con father figure who has gone straight (Walter Jones) warns Johnny that he has contracted "Charley fever"—that is, trying to beat the white man at his own game. The fever inevitably proves fatal, and finally the stage is as loaded with corpses as the bloodiest Elizabethan tragedy.
The mechanics of melodrama infest the story to its detriment. The tough white whore (Susan G. Pearson) commits suicide offstage out of unrequited love for Johnny, an event that is distinctly implausible. At times the play meanders without a visible sense of direction. Despite such flaws, the drama ticks with menace and, for such an abrasive subject, is unexpectedly and explosively funny. Gordone has expertly oiled the sly and sassy tongues by which black puts down his fellow black, and the cast's phrasing of these expletives is impeccable.
If the characters are not quite solidly realized, their sentiments most emphatically are. A frustrated actor (Ron O'Neal), who is light enough to cross the color line but not dark enough to be hired as a token Negro in a Broadway show, delivers a bravura monologue on what whites expect of blacks that is hilarious, yet drenched in the acid insights of a people inured to pain. Gordone is too honest to lie about a bright brotherly tomorrow, but in thunder and in laughter he tells the racial truth about today.
Edith Oliver (review date 17 May 1969)
SOURCE: "A Good Place to Be," in New Yorker, Vol. 44, 17 May 1969, pp. 112-14.
[In the mixed assessment below, Oliver praises the acting in No Place to Be Somebody and Gordone's evocation of "the sense of life and intimacy of people in a place, and of the diversity of their moods, " but she also finds the play long and lacking focus.]
All the action—and there is a lot of it—in Charles Gordone's No Place to Be Somebody is set in a bar in the West Village that is owned by a Negro named Johnny Williams. The raffish characters, of various colors, include prostitutes, racketeers, pot smokers, and a crook or two, and I doubt whether you'll find anywhere in town a livelier, more interesting bunch to spend an evening with. The play, performed in a small downstairs arena theatre at the Public, is a harsh, sardonic comedy, a melodrama, and a tragedy. At the opening, a light-colored actor is seated at one of the tables typing. He tears out the sheet and crumples it. Then he turns to the audience and addresses us directly. He is, he tells us, a dramatist named Gabe, and the play we are about to see is one he is making up as he goes along (he lights a marijuana cigarette)—a figment of his "grassy imagination." Throughout the evening, he has one foot in the action and one foot out of it. (This difficult part is played with delicacy, strength, flexibility, and bitter humor by Ron O'Neal.) A volatile, mischievous, sensitive man, Gabe is a habitué of the saloon and a close friend of Johnny's. Before each of the three acts, he switches into his role of commentator and delivers a monologue. The last of these monologues, by the way, which he does in the style of a revivalist preacher, is extremely effective and evokes quite a response from the audience. There are several plots (in both meanings of the word) and subplots running through the script, but what is more important is the sense of life and intimacy of people in a place, and of the diversity of their moods—the sudden, sometimes inexplicable, spurts of anger and wildness and fooling—and their understanding of one another. The main plot deals with Johnny's efforts to keep afloat—to be his own man on his own terms in what amounts to alien territory. He goes under, finally, a victim of the local Mafia, and a victim, too, of some fairly spectacular flaws in his own nature, among them what a dying old crony of his calls "the Charlie fever"—"We couldn't copy his [the white man's] good points and live, so we copied his bad points and hated him that much more."
The performance, under Ted Cornell's direction, works well. Nathan George is convincing and somehow sympathetic as the complicated Johnny—a pimp and a rough-neck, treacherous, loyal, and truly brave—who has something decent inside him that often comes out wrong. Of the supporting actors, my favorite is Henry Baker, a large, burly fellow in the role of the saloon's chef, who is, on the side, a dancer in training. Mr. Baker's performance is sunny and full of little surprises, and he gives the show an element of innocence and comic delight. Marge Eliot is good as a regular customer—a Negro woman who works as a practical nurse and loves the spindly Irish bartender (enough to take care of him, at any rate). Ronnie Thompson, vacant-eyed and always in rhythmic motion, does well as the bartender, who is three-quarters crazy with his efforts to pass as a Negro and with his drug-induced day-dreams of having once been a jazz drummer, and a scene in which he and Miss Eliot share a surreptitious marijuana cigarette is very funny. My respects, too, to Walter Jones, as the old crony; to Nick Lewis, who is quietly dangerous as a local gangster; and to Paul Benjamin, as a mysterious black militant who cuts across the action from time to time, and who may or may not be a fantasy figure. I have some reservations about No Place to Be Somebody. It is too long—much too long for that small, airless theatre, certainly—and although most of the lines ring true, there are a number of clinkers. There are also a few scenes that could be cut or dispensed with. Nevertheless, the play is original, and it belongs, together with The Time of Your Life, The Iceman Cometh, and The Tavern, in the sturdy tradition of American saloon drama.
Clayton Riley (review date 18 May 1969)
SOURCE: "O, Blacks, Are We Damned Forever?" in The New York Times, 18 May 1969, p. D22.
[The following is a sharply negative evaluation of No Place to Be Somebody. Riley finds some admirable qualities in Gordone's script—particularly the vivid characterizations—but considers the play's strengths overcome by deeply flawed direction and staging.]
Gloomy days … did I imagine they had gone away, ceased for a time to haunt us?
The newest occasion for my distress over an absence of the sun—however symbolic—revolves around and around two recent viewings of Charles Gordone's play, No Place to Be Somebody, at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theater.
Brother Gordone is an eminently gifted and hard-working artist who has fallen prey to that lamentable inclination of Black men in America to trot along someone else's road—those paved boulevards of good intention that lead inevitably to … ah, need we say? He has been forced, by the lack of alternative choices, no doubt, into an acceptance of small favors offered by men of cultural limitations.
O, Blacks, America's living and beautiful darkness, are we damned forever to be grateful for those whites who claim to understand us?
A less destitute population, recognizing André Gide's wisdom—"do not understand me too quickly"—might spurn all these dangerous favors. And Brother Gordone would not be presented so shabbily, would not be pushed into consorting with those who are not capable of adequately producing or staging his work, those who do not know what he is about.
His dubious benefactor is Joseph Papp, the producer, whose responsibilities include, I assume, seeing that a playwright's work is offered to the viewing public in the best possible shape. Papp has failed to accomplish this with Gordone's play. In his obvious haste to rush forth with a piece of au courant black material, he has allowed the play to arrive on stage with much work still needing to be done on it: editing, reshaping, considerable redefinition in several areas.
His limited grasp of the milieu involved in No Place to Be Somebody leads Papp, further, to assume that a certain level of obscurity is perfectly acceptable so long as it is offered in a black frame of reference. But, as one of Gordone's characters informs us, "There's more to being black than meets the eye."
To fail as Papp has, the man needed assistance, and in his assault upon our sensibilities (not to mention Gordone's play) he has been abetted by one Ted Cornell, who lists himself, rather presumptuously, I can tell you, as a director. Cornell's work may be described, with all the kindness due him, as monumentally confused, slothful, without recent precedent in its amateurish clumsiness.
No Place to Be Somebody concerns itself with the life and times of an ambitious pimp and hustler named Johnny Williams. As played by Nathan George, Johnny emerges as an appropriately hungry product of New York's equally undernourished and brutal streets, a man who lusts after impossible realms of power, those stations of the cross and pistol that are the criminal's pulpit and sanctuary. He is to fail, and we know this from the outset, just as we know he is doomed to an abrupt departure from this vale of tears and violence—by the gun, of course.
Johnny owns a small bar in the Village, headquarters for his integrated duet of street-walking ladies, vending mock passion day or night, trading verbal bayonets during their coffee breaks. It is a gathering place as well for a medley of discordant voices belonging to Gabe Gabriel, the play's occasional narrator, and a poetic, aspiring thespian; Shanty Mulligan, the bartender, and living study of the phenomenon called the white hipster; Shanty's pained and sorrowful Black woman, Cora; and Mel, a Black dance student paying dues as a short order cook. Into this continuum of purgatorial failure flash the forms—if not the substance—of assorted Mafia smoothies, law enforcement agents, civil rights enthusiasts, a judge, a Black militant visionary, and Johnny's long time hero/father figure, the once big-time Black mobster, Sweets Crane.
We see them all, burdened with rage and shame, anguish and every conceivable brand of cruelty or hatred. But these emotions, though personal and immediate to all our lives, and expressed here at length, fail to engage us immediately or personally enough. We are left to consider what might have been, what should have been, and what seems, in the end, the lost chance to learn from or share something with these extremely well-drawn but, in the performance, poorly defined characters.The play—as written—is designed to function on at least two levels. Each of the three acts, for example, begins with a reference by Gabe (played quite beautifully at times by Ron O'Neal) that seems to exist outside the basic framework of dramatic realism that Gordone has utilized. These references are complemented several times by the words of the Black militant visionary Machine Dog (Paul Benjamin) whose utterances are unquestionably symbolic. (Does he exist only in Johnny's imagination?)
By staging these symbolic moments no differently from the way he does the rest of the play, Cornell overlooks the necessity for maintaining a clear, workable marriage between the playwright's prose and his poetry. Such a union must occur if Gordone's commentary (which is, in fact, masterfully conceived) is to clarify the lives of the figures he has created.
Adding further damage to the play's execution is the disconcerting habit of the actors of drifting toward the obvious rather than in the direction of the drama's strength, which lies in the development of the less predictable points in Gordone's writing. When Shanty Mulligan, drowning in his obsessive wish to convince Johnny that he is a black-oriented genius of a jazz drummer, fails pitifully, the moment falters because we have been expecting it for too long. Even an exceptionally precise performance by Ronnie Thompson as Shanty cannot bring the scene off. The suicide of Dee, Johnny's white hooker (played in absurd comic opera style by Susan Pearson) is also carefully set up for us and, thereby, ruined.
Elsewhere, and far too often, the play's numerous dramatic values go largely unexplored. Several of the players speak in a fashion that is all but incomprehensible. Transitions are sloppily handled, one scene crashing into the next, the director's ineptness leading him to "move" the play with such tactics as having doors fly open and slam shut in order to guide every shift of mood toward entrances and exits. Beyond that, director Cornell's notion of building or holding tension is to have actors talk right through logical pauses; all other devices failing him, he shuts off the stage lights.
True, the play is too long. That doesn't help matters. Some of the characters, interesting though they are, belong in Gordone's next play. (Let us pray there is one.)
Moreover, Gordone's control of his words occasionally lapses, thrusting the play into some disquieting areas. At such times an ominous rumble is heard: a suspicion of self-hatred here, a hint of contempt for Black people there. Rather bad news.
Gordone's worst errors, however, grow out of his desire to say too much—indeed, to say it all—in this, his first play. Pouring all of his clearly rich experience and splendid talents into one work is, I fear, a thoroughly uncool move.
I was speaking of his worst errors. Excuse me, I meant second worst. The first was in allowing the Public Theater to get at his play.
Henry Hewes (review date 31 May 1969)
SOURCE: Review of No Place to Be Somebody, in Saturday Review, New York, Vol. LII, No. 22, 31 May 1969, p. 18.
[In the following appraisal, Hewes argues that the acting and directing make up for the shortcomings of the plot of No Place to Be Somebody.]
The great thing about Charles Gordone's new play, No Place to Be Somebody, is that despite its melodramatic crudities, it is very actable for its performers and frequently rises above its B-movie plot to communicate a real sense of the despair behind the various interracial attitudes available to black people. The play takes place in a bar run by Johnny Williams, an angry illiterate black man, who has succeeded in running a bar and being a pimp because of a toughness he has learned the hard way. What keeps him going is his ambition to run the rackets in a neighborhood presently controlled by white gangsters.
His bar is peopled with a wide assortment of characters, almost all of whom are convincingly played by the cast at the Public Theater's downstairs playhouse, The Other Stage. Nathan George nicely underplays the viciousness of Johnny, so that we feel the complexity of the character. He has learned early to hate white society and not to trust anybody. Yet, he employs an incompetent white helper, and he loans money to an out-of-work actor. Johnny asks no sympathy, and somehow we excuse his cruelty.
Under the splendid direction of Ted Cornell, the performances are true. Susan Pearson and Lynda Westcott, as white and black prostitutes respectively, demonstrate that professional ties are stronger than racial identities. Henry Baker adds a touch of humor as an effeminate ballet dancer. And most memorable of all is the grizzled alienated performance of Walter Jones as Sweets Crane, the black ex-con, who tries to talk Johnny out of his "Charlie Fever." With deceptive simplicity, he explains, "We couldn't copy Charlie's good points an' live like men. So we copied his bad points. … All it did was make us hate him all the more and ourselves, too."
The most dramatic role in the play, however, is that of Gabe, the out-of-work actor, who periodically abandons the naturalistic convention to deliver a number of long monologues that use humor and candor to express the absurdity and tragedy of racism. Ron O'Neal, a handsome actor with a high-voltage voice, makes these electrifying. In "The Ballad of the Potomac Rush," he mocks in doggerel what he considers the unsuccessful Poor People's March and its disunited combination of dissenters with widely differing motives. And he ends up with the sardonic comment, "An' we didn't leave a chitlin behin'."
Later, he takes the hymn "Whiter Than Snow" and sings it as the refrain to a long, sad ballad describing his own futile attempts to become white enough to live in white society. And equally effective is his sarcastic sermon, "They's mo' to bein' black than meets the eye." His epilogue speech in which he mourns the passing of "a people whose identity could only be measured by the struggle, the dehumanization, the degradation they allowed themselves to suffer" is somehow less moving than it should be, and one suspects that here Mr. O'Neal might have been well-advised to depart from the "put-on" style of delivery and risk a direct expression of his emotion.
No Place to Be Somebody does no more than describe the dilemma as it exists. For none of the solutions currently available to the characters in this play seems remotely adequate to the problem. Nevertheless, in stating their frustration without complaint, Mr. Gordone has cracked the convenient attitudes that give false comfort.
Jack Kroll (review date 2 June 1969)
SOURCE: "Real Black Power," in Newsweek, Vol. 73, 2 June 1969, p. 101.
[The following is a review of No Place to Be Somebody after it moved to the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA) Theater. Kroll judges it an ambitious play, "written with a mixture of white heat and intellectual clarity."]
The so-called new black theater is the only part of the contemporary stage that really has what used to be called social consciousness. Black theater is our time's social theater, and like the last broadly based and coherent social theater, that of the '30s, it is caught between art, ideology and action. The most powerful of the new black dramatists—Ed Bullins, LeRoi Jones, Lonne Elder—move ambivalently between a primal urge to galvanize the black audience to action and the other, larger and more diffused motivations of the authentic artists they are.
The best new black plays reflect this dilemma. Elder's Ceremonies in Dark Old Men has a terrific impact on the black audience (the fresh responsiveness of that audience is almost the most interesting thing in the whole black-theater phenomenon) but, as with the old New York Yiddish theater, its primary effect is an exchange of essentially sentimental coins between play and playgoer. Bullins's short play, "Clara's Ole Man," has a terrific wallop in its dead-center realism, but its small scale restricts its effect. Charles Gordone's No Place to Be Somebody is the first new black play I have seen that comes close to putting everything together. It is ambitious, written with a mixture of white heat and intellectual clarity; it is necessarily and brilliantly grounded in realism but takes off from there with high courage and imagination; it is funny and sad, angry and stoical, revolutionary and conciliatory. And perhaps most important, it unmistakably looks, sounds, feels, smells and tastes like a play.
Directed by Ted Cornell at the small arena-type Other Stage, one of the slowly ramifying sectors of Joseph Papp's indispensable Public Theater, the production is, among other things, a showcase for two wonderful performances, by Ron O'Neal as Gabe Gabriel, the inside-and-outside-the-play observer, and by Nathan George as Johnny Williams, the saloonkeeper clenched with every conceivable black hatred against "Charlie." Indeed, it is "Charlie fever" that is Gordone's central theme, the anti-white fever that every black must pass through but that he must pass through if he is to achieve self and society.
Johnny Williams battens on his Charlie fever like a mantis munching dragonflies. He cannot read, but he can see the handwriting on his Greenwich Village saloon wall. It says, "Get your own," and the pot at the end of Williams's ghetto-splattered rainbow is his own status as a black Mafia ace who will run his own mini-rackets without dealing off to the white mob. This ironic parody of the American dream leads to a small but sufficient apocalypse that destroys everything—Johnny, his white Jewish whore-girl friend, the white spavined hipster whose fantasy is to be a jazz drummer as good as any black, another white girl whom Johnny is using to pressure the corrupt white legal-political structure, the old black arch-crook who taught Johnny the ideology of crime, and an assortment of hoods.
The amazing thing is that what seems like a farrago of melodramatic slivers holds together. At times things go too slowly (but the details are always splendidly sharp), and in the third act they threaten to fly apart forever, but Gordone brings everything together in a weirdly marvelous coup de théâtre, in which what has seemed the flyspecked reality of a sordid and hopeless social scene explodes into the authentic surprise and fruitful ambiguities of its deepest implications. Ron O'Neal carries the brunt of this coda with the high intelligence, lyrical dynamism and absolute power he has been showing all through the play, especially in a series of jackhammer soliloquies which savagely shake out the old laundry of various black ideologies from Christian acceptance to machine-gun militancy.
As the white whore, Susan G. Pearson plays her many levels of doom with a beautiful sense of total ravagement; Walter Jones is excellent as the old arch-crook, and so is Ronnie Thompson, a raddled rhapsody of syncopated twitches as the pseudo-drummer. George is unforgettable as Johnny, wolfing sandwiches, sliced lemons and beer as he prowls restlessly around his saloon-universe, cutting his gimlet eyes around the room like blades thudding into wormy wood, finger-popping, shoulder-shaking, hip-swiveling in the unsoothable rhythm of bitter bravado which is the music of black alienation. From time to time one hears about money troubles at the two-season-old Public Theater. If Papp's enterprise succumbs because of money it will be a tragedy for the embattled hopes of the American theater.
John Simon (review date 9 June 1969)
SOURCE: "Underwriting, Overreaching," in New York Magazine, 9 June 1969, Vol. 2, No. 23, p. 56.
[Simon disparages nearly every aspect of No Place to Be Somebody—including the writing, the acting, and the directing—declaring that "there is nothing in this play to make a big fuss about. "]
No Place to Be Somebody is a play that would pass more or less unnoticed were it written by a white dramatist. It is written, however, by a black playwright, Charles Gordone, and being hailed as something just short of a revelation. Most extravagant in his praise was Walter Kerr, who compared this first play not to the younger or lesser Albee, but to "the already ripe and roaring Albee of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" [The New York Times, 19 May 1969]. Well, roaring, to be sure. If I were Albee, I'd sue.
Gordone's play centers on Johnny Williams, who has made it out of Harlem to Greenwich Village, where he owns a bar, has a black and a white hooker working for him, and sleeps with the latter. He is awaiting the release from jail of Sweets Crane, crook and father figure, with whom he wants to make the big time. But Sweets comes out a dying and reformed man, who only picks pockets for sport and returns the spoils. Johnny is so furious he almost kills him. But, in the mean time, Johnny has become the lover of Mary Lou Bolton, a white college girl and political activist, daughter of a crooked judge who helped the Mafia. The Mafia is crowding Johnny, who decides to take them on. His white whore, in jealous despair, commits suicide. With Mary Lou's help, and despite her subsequent betrayal, Johnny almost makes it, but ends up, after numerous melodramatic twists, killed by his friend Gabe Gabriel, a young Negro actor-playwright. Gabe executes Johnny at the behest of Machine Dog, a black militant who, though he exists only in Johnny's mind, manages to be an extremely obstreperous symbol. Of course, the whole play may exist only in Gabe's mind, for he introduces every act with a monologue from which, alas, I could not deduce whether what followed was an act of invention or reminiscence.
There are various subplots: the efforts of Gabe, almost white though he is, to land a black part on Broadway; Shanty Mulligan's, the white dope-addict bartender's, yearning to be a drummer and a Negro, and his eventual discarding of both the dream of blackness and his devoted black girl friend, Cora. And there is the story of Cora, who ends up marrying a rich Negro and setting out to educate herself. There is also Melvin, the short-order cook who would be a ballet dancer, but is so shocked by the immorality of the white society as to relapse definitively into cookery. There is the white whore who loves Johnny and dies for him, and the black whore who vainly yearns for him and kicks him in the crotch. And there is the ending, where Gabe does a transvestite act in widow's weeds that also manage to shroud the meaning of the symbolism.
Gordone has written a typical protest play. But he has chopped it up into short scenes to give it a novel-like quality, and he has added the monologues, the transvestite bit and the imaginary militant to raise the play out of naturalism. The attempts at heightening miscarry, and even the realistic foundation is shaky. I sympathize with Gordone's bitterness and understand his pent-up rage; it is his dramaturgy that I have little use for. He 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. It is all rather like The Time of Your Life, with the rosy spectacles traded in for shades. As for Ted Cornell's direction, it is mostly a new kind of weightlifting, using decibels for dumbbells, and getting all the characters to beat their fists on whatever piece of furniture is nearest, as if they were all frustrated drummers.
The acting is wild and wildly uneven. Ronnie Thompson as Shanty and Laurie Crews as Mary Lou are hopeless; Paul Benjamin as Machine Dog rants on incomprehensibly; Ron O'Neal is unpleasantly narcissistic as Gabe, but Nathan George would be fine as Johnny if he could control his diction. Marge Eliot is a warmly convincing Cora, and Henry Baker a beautifully resonant image of injured dignity as Melvin. The others are passable or by-passable. But there is nothing in this play to make a big fuss about; if you want a true work of the imagination, read Walter Kerr's review.
Mel Gussow (review date 31 December 1969)
SOURCE: Review of No Place to Be Somebody, in The New York Times, 31 December 1969, p. 17.
[In the review below of the ANTA Theater staging, Gussow asserts that No Place to Be Somebody is "a play of great force and commitment, one that must be seen—wherever it is playing. "]
Charles Gordone's No Place to Be Somebody began as a workshop production in Joseph Papp's Public Theater, moved upstairs to the larger Anspacher Theater, and closed after an extended—but not long enough—run. Last night it opened for a limited run on Broadway in the still larger ANTA Theater, and seemed to grow in theatrically, raw energy, power and stature.
The play still takes place in Johnny Williams's bar, and on its second level, in the mind of the playwright-actor Gabe Gabriel. Downtown on an open stage, the bar seemed suspended in space, where now on a proscenium stage bedded in reality.
The denizens of Johnny's bar, like those of Harry Hope's saloon in [Eugene O'Neill's] The Iceman Cometh, are waiting for a fulfillment of their dreams, which are illusions, and in some cases delusions. Gordone's savior is Sweets Crane, the legendary black thief who—when released from prison—has turned pacifist and reformer. Like O'Neill's Hickey, he smashes his disciple's dream.
The comparison can be carried too far. Gordone's work is not as polished as O'Neill's. It is harsher and rawer. Its humor is full of bile. On one level this was an extraordinarily funny plan and it now seems even funnier in the most malicious way. The playwright has obviously been working on this play since it first opened. For one thing the motif of the black militant, Machine Dog, is better integrated, and the actor who plays him, a new one to the cast, does so with a suitable malevolence.
But mostly this is the same play as the one downtown. It even has the same flaws. In the second act, the action turns quickly into something resembling a James Cagney movie, and then there is a shoot-out that looks like the last scene of Hamlet. But even flawed, No Place to Be Somebody is a drama of great force and commitment, one that must be seen—wherever it is playing.
If nothing else—and there is much else—Gordone has a marvelous talent for dialogue, for bitter epithets and insults; for confrontations (each one a striking set piece); for small details that reveal character (the Italian mobster who is momentarily distracted from killing by the sight of soul food, which he grew up on); and for creating whole and vivid characters.
The superb original cast, almost to the man, is ensembled again, and re-directed with great physicality by Ted Cornell. Nathan George is the violent Johnny, whose ambition is to head his own, black, Mafia. Ron O'Neal, once again, is Johnny's friend and antagonist, the light-skinned Gabe who tries to make it through the system, fails, and keeps trying. In a series of sardonic sermon-like soliloquies he counterpoints his outward complacency with deep anger and frustration.
Splendid in lesser parts are Ronnie Thompson as the hip-talking, drum-playing white Uncle Tom who desperately wants to be black, Marge Eliot as the little Negro girl who desperately wants to marry white, Walter Jones as sweet old Sweets Crane, and Henry Baker, in his inimitable role as dancing Melvin Smeltz.
Jeanne-Marie A. Miller (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: "A Drama of the Black Experience," in The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. XXXX, No. 2, Spring, 1971, pp. 185-86.
[The following is a review of the printed edition of No Place to Be Somebody. Miller observes that the play seems less diffuse and better integrated when read rather than seen performed.]
Charles Gordone's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama [No Place to Be Somebody] depicts the black experience, but it is also concerned with people, black and white, who are filled with despair but who continue to hold on to their dreams, dreams shaped by their surroundings. The play takes place in Johnny's bar in New York City and in the mind of Gabe, an unemployed actor-playwright. Johnny tries to survive by operating his saloon, which is none too profitable, and by collecting the earnings of a white prostitute who loves him. Meanwhile he waits for Sweets Crane, a father figure, to be released from prison so that they can launch their black Mafia. That is Johnny's dream. In short, Johnny wants to emulate the successful white criminals around him. When the lengendary Sweets is released, however, he is reformed, and this reformation of his idol only intensifies Johnny's efforts to make his dream come true, without Sweets. Johnny's determination eventually leads to his death and to the death of Sweets.
The action in Gordone's play is harsh and raw. The confrontations between the characters are many and striking as they engage in their love-hate relationships. Thus the black prostitute, Evie, and the white prostitute, Dee, compete against each other and love each other. Shanty, a white man, unsuccessful in life, works in Johnny's bar and dreams of playing like the best black drummers. He turns cruelly on the simple black woman who loves him when she buys for him the drums he yearns for but cannot play. She, after unpleasant treatment from a series of black men, dreams that she will have a happier relationship with a white man. Of the depressed characters who wander in and out of Johnny's, she is one of the fortunate who escape. Gordone has created an impressive array of characters who live always on the edge of explosion. Even Gabe, a light-skinned Negro, who tries and tries again to make it within the system and whose exterior seems more complacent than that of the others, reveals in his soliloquies the smoldering beneath:
It's the body that keeps us standin'! The Soul that keeps us goin' ! An' the spirit That'll take us thooo! Yes! They's mo' to bein' black than meets The eye!
Each soliloquy reveals his mounting frustration and displays his lessening moderation. In the epilogue, dressed as a mourning black woman, he hails a new day:
I will mourn the death of a people dying. Of a people dying into that new life.
The action of No Place to Be Somebody is episodic; the construction, complex. But with a few exceptions Gordone weaves all of these elements into an integrated whole. The action, which sometimes seems overburdening on stage, becomes less so when the play is read. Then the architecture of the play reveals itself more clearly. The character Machine Dog, the symbol of black militancy in the mind of Johnny, is one of the elements that remain separate from the whole. Though I understand the playwright's intention, to deepen the meaning of the character of Johnny, Machine Dog remains a flaw. I am struck by the richness of Gordone's language—witty, lyrical, convincing. The dialogue, though sometimes humorous, is filled with pathos and insults.
By the standards of the black revolutionary dramatists, Gordone is a conservative. His play does not fulfill LeRoi Jones's challenge to black playwrights: "Everything we do must commit us collectively to revolution, i.e., National Liberation." Gordone, on the other hand, believes that the idea of the black theatre is dead. On January 25, 1970, in The New York Times, he articulated his purpose in writing:
I am a black playwright but my main thrust in the writing is to make it universal. And, as an "American writer," to write about the human and spiritual isolation of both black and white … I can't deny that I am a "black playwright." A man writes about what he comes from. He'd like to prophesy and talk about where he's going, or if he's going at all. But if you are a writer and you are going to talk about black people, include the humanity of all people, the love of all people, the humor of all people, the will to survive and the will to live—of all people—and the strength of people against fantastic odds. The black experience in this country has a hell of a lot to do with all that.
No Place to Be Somebody, which recalls Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, began as a workshop production in Joseph Papp's Public Theater and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1970. Its creator, Charles Gordone, has been described as "the most astonishing new American playwright to come along since Edward Albee."
Catharine Hughes (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: "America Hurrah?: No Place to Be Somebody, in Plays, Politics, and Polemics, Drama Book Specialists, 1973, pp. 53-9.
[In the essay below, Hughes contends that the mourning tone of Gabe 's epilogue is "somehow wrong, false even, " that it violates the "pungency" and "immediacy" of the rest of the play.]
We was got the day we was born! Where you been? Jus' bein' black ain't never been no real reason for livin '.
Johnny's Bar. It is in Greenwich Village, and it is in Gabe Gabriel's head—perhaps more in Gabe's head. He is an actor and a writer—an actor whose "black" skin is so light he cannot get a role as a black, a writer who tells you in the opening speech that he is working on a play and that he is "gonna make it all up in my head as I go along." But, he warns the audience, it isn't "a figment of my grassy imagination." It is real, as real as his pain, as real as the torment, the pain, and the anguish of nearly all the characters in Charles Gordone's powerful and lacerating "Black-black comedy" No Place to Be Somebody.
Shanty Mulligan is the first we meet. He is a young white man, a junkie and a handyman of sorts in Johnny's Bar. White, but wanting desperately to be black. With his ever-present drumsticks, rapping rhythmically on bar and table top, he lives off his myth of the past—his one great jam session when he sat in for Max Roach and "01 Red Taylor said wasn't nobody could hold a beat an' steady cook it like me. Said I had 'the thing'!" Shanty is going to get himself another set of drums; he is going to make his "comeback"—someday.
Then there is Johnny Williams himself: young, angry, and black. He runs his bar, but runs it at the sufferance of Pete Zerroni and his white Mafia-style henchmen. "Crackers cain't 'magine Niggers runnin' nothin' but elevators an' toilets," he tells Shanty. And Johnny knows; he has tried often enough to be a black operator. From the time when he was a kid, an orphan who benefited from the tutelage of Sweets Crane, who treated him "like his own son," he has meant to be somebody. Sweets has taught him how to play the white man's game, if not how to beat him at it. Johnny intends to figure out that final step. He has a scheme and, he says to Gabe, "the scheme is together." Sweets is about to get out of prison after a ten-year stretch and "me an' him gon' git us a piece'a this town."
Gabe will have no part of it. He isn't looking to break the law. Johnny is scornful:
They ain't no law. They kill you an' me in the name'a the law. You an' me wouldn't be where we at, if it wasn't for the law. Even the laws they write for us makes us worse off.
Gabe's hatred is of another kind. He has spent his life working at not losing his temper. His mind is the vessel for his rage, but that rage is going to remain closely contained. It is only in his head—only to the audience—that he admits what is going on, how "deep down inside things begin to happen"; how he sometimes gets "so vicious, I wanna go out an' commit mass murder." But, just as quickly, he insists he's not "hung up on crap like persecution an' hatred."
Although Gabe calls himself a black playwright, he is going to leave "that violence jazz" to those who are better at it. But, in his head and in Johnny's Bar, there is "that violence jazz" and, even more, his recollections of how "those dirty-black people" moved out of "that dirty-black slum" to a "clean-white neighborhood" and "grew up clean and keen" only to find that no matter "how hard we scrubbed, it was only making us blacker!" Blacker and more the victims of hypocrisy. In one of the prologues with which Gabe opens each act, he observes:
Yes! They's mo' to bein' black than meets The eye! Bein' black has a way'a makin' ya mad mos' Of the time, hurt all the time an' havin' So many hangups, the problem'a soo-side Don't even enter yo' min'! It's buyin' What you don't want, beggin' what you don't Need! An' stealin' what is yo's by rights! Yes! They's mo' to bein' black than meets the Eye!
Meanwhile, the frequenters of Johnny's Bar come and go: black and white whores, one of whom Johnny pimps for; a black practical nurse named Cora, who is in love with Shanty and promises to help him get a new set of drums; a short-order cook named Melvin, who is studying dancing; and a new face, Mary Lou Bolton, a white girl, just out of college and ready to lecture Johnny on how she is involved in picketing a nearby construction site because "the unions won't accept qualified Negroes." Why, Johnny challenges, don't those qualified Negroes "do they own pickitin'?" Mary Lou goes off to carry her civil rights placard. She will, however, be back.
Finally, Sweets Crane arrives. But he is not the Sweets Johnny remembers; he is not the dude with three hundred suits who was "into some's ev'thing." He is obviously ill—dying, as it turns out—and he has had his fill of the action. Johnny doesn't believe it. But Johnny has the "Charlie fever." Sweets tells him:
I gave it to you. … Way we was raised, husslin' an' usin' yo' biscuit to pull quickies was the only way we could feel like we was men. Couldn't copy Charlie's good points an' live like men. So we copied his bad points. … We just pissed away our lives tryin' to be bad like Charlie. … All it did was make us hate him all the more an' ourselves too. Then I tried to go horse-to-horse with 'em up there in the Bronx. An' ended up with a ten.… Seems to me, the worse sickness'a man kin have is the Charlie fever.
And Johnny Williams has a bad case of it. He, too, wants to go "horse-to-horse" with the white man, to have his black Mafia. That it won't be well received by Pete Zerroni is clear two days later when one of his "community relations" men shows up in the bar to warn Johnny not to have anything to do with any plans Sweets may have. Sweets, however, has no plans. He is dying and in his will he has left Johnny an interest in various stores and real estate that he has accumulated over the years.
It obviously isn't going to work out that way. Johnny has no desire to go straight, to give up his plan. As he starts to pursue it, it becomes evident that quite a few may get hurt along the way. One of the first is Dee, his white whore, whom he is ready to cast aside in favor of Mary Lou. Mary Lou, it seems, is the daughter of a judge, and that judge was the lawyer for Pete Zerroni at a time when he was on trial for murder and attempting to bribe a city official. Dee has realized that Johnny is involved with another woman. As she sits in the bar drinking in his absence, she gets drunker by the minute. Finally, she opens her purse, removes a can of black shoe polish, and starts to apply it to her face. Just at that moment, Johnny comes in. When Mary Lou arrives seconds later, Dee runs off, drunkenly telling Johnny to "run away from here fast. Run for your life." But it is not her life Dee runs for; it is toward her death. She slashes her wrists in the ladies' room of the Hotel Theresa.
No Place to Be Somebody is a play of dying dreams. It is not only that Dee fails to get out of "the life" and to marry Johnny. There is Shanty. When Cora buys him his drums, the drums he has so boasted of playing and has so yearned to have replaced, they come back with them to Johnny's. It is to be his moment of triumph, the moment when he can finally show them the truth of his past glories, the moment at which he can quit his job in the bar and move on to claim his future. Shanty sits down at the drums, nervously fumbles with them, taps on the cymbals, then begins. He becomes louder and louder, more and more wild, frantic almost to the point of possession. But there is nothing there. If he ever "played like'a spade," he can no longer. But he will not, perhaps cannot, stop, until finally Johnny pours a pitcher of water over his head. It is a moment of shame, of anguish, for Cora. Shanty leaps up, shouting, "I had it! I was on it! I was into it, babee!" But Shanty will never be musically black, never have the kind of "soul" he aspires to and claims. So he must turn on Cora, turn on her because by buying him the drums she has caused him to reveal the hollowness of his claims and of his dreams.
"You don't want me to play no drums," he accuses her. "Thought you'd make a fool out'a me, did you? Gittin' me to bring these drums in here. You thought I'd mess it up. Well, I showed you where it was at. I showed all'a you." He insists that she call the store to come and get the drums; he does not need her to buy them for him. He will get his own—someday. Meanwhile, they are through. It is the only way he can hang on to some fragment of his dream, avoid his humiliation. "What happens to a dream deferred?" asked Langston Hughes. For Shanty at least, it does not explode.
Johnny's dreams, too, are doomed, though he does not yet know it. "Someone" has called Mary Lou's father and told him to stop her from seeing Johnny. Johnny insists it is because Zerroni is afraid he may be able to obtain through her some of her father's records on the Zerroni case and use them to keep Zerroni off his back. Zerroni "don't like it if a Nigger's got a place'a business in his ter'tory." Mary Lou tells him there are people they can go to for help. Johnny demurs:
You liberal-ass white people kill me! All the time know more 'bout wha's bes' for Niggers'n Niggers do.
Mary Lou: You don't have to make the world any worse.
Johnny: Never had no chance to make it no better neither.
Mary Lou gets him his records and his tape from her father's safe. The information he wants about the murder and the bribe is all there. And it is his undoing, for he has wanted it not, as he told Mary Lou, to keep Zerroni from forcing him out of business, but in order to blackmail his way into his own racket. When Gabe tells her, she refuses to believe it, but Johnny acknowledges, "I gotta right to my own game. Just like they do."
But not for long. A day later, the judge appears with two plainclothesmen. Mary Lou has been picked up for trying to solicit an officer and she has claimed she was working for him. Before they take him in, however, the judge is willing to strike a bargain: Johnny's freedom for the notes and tape. Johnny agrees, or seems to; but Johnny has had copies made. The judge is satisfied, but Zerroni's henchman Maffucci, who shows up moments later, is not. Zerroni may be willing to forget it all, but for Maffucci, it doesn't "look good on my record."
Sweets attempts to defend Johnny with a knife and is shot, the first death in a series of almost Hamlet proportions, which eventually finds not only Sweets but Maffucci, his partner, and Johnny strewn about the barroom floor. Johnny, however, dies not at Maffucci's hand, but at Gabe's. He has promised Sweets, as he lay dying, that he will go straight, get rid of "the Cholly fever." It is a promise he has no intention of keeping. "It's your war too, Nigger," he tells Gabe. "Why can't you see that? You wanna go on believin' in the lie. We at war, Gabe! Black ag'inst white." He taunts him that he is a "lousy, yellow, screamin' faggot coward." But Johnny has gone too far. Gabe kills him, wipes off the gun, places it in his hand, and then leaves, only to return in a brief and curious epilogue.
He is dressed as a woman in mourning, a spokesman for black anguish:
I will weep, I will wail, and I will mourn. But my cries will not be heard. No one will wipe away my bitter tears. My black anguish will fall upon deaf ears. I will mourn a passing! Yes. The passing of the ending of a people dying. Of a people dying into that new life. A people whose identity could only be measured by the struggle, the dehumanization, the degradation they suffered. Or allowed themselves to suffer perhaps.
The tone is somehow wrong, false even. It fails to jibe with the harsh and bitter reality and the ironic humor that have gone before. For what has gone before, for all its melodrama and its sometime lack of discipline, has a pungency, an immediacy, and a cohesiveness that that last gesture somehow violates. But it is one of the very few wrong steps. No Place to Be Somebody vibrates with a kind of vitality all too seldom found on contemporary stages. It may sprawl; it may on occasion become self-indulgent or sentimental; it never bores. It is alive.
Barnes, Clive. Review of No Place to Be Somebody. The New York Times (10 September 1970).
Assessment of a revival of No Place to Be Somebody on Broadway. Barnes argues that Gordone's revisions of the play make it "far clearer and stronger."
Gill, Brendan. Review of No Place to Be Somebody. New Yorker 45 (10 January 1970): 64-5.
Maintains that "it is a proof of Mr. Gordone's immense talent that the excrementitious gutterances of his large cast of whores, gangsters, jailbirds, and beat-up drifters stamp themselves on the memory as beautiful."
Garland, Phyl. "The Prize Winners." Ebony 25, No. 9 (July 1970): 29-37.
Describes No Place to Be Somebody as "a jarring journey in action and words through a nether world of pimps, prostitutes, hustlers, and hoods." Includes several production photos.
Gordone, Charles. "A Quiet Talk with Myself." Esquire 73 (January 1970): 79-81, 174.
A mock interview with himself in which Gordone comments on the social and political events of the 1960s.
Gussow, Mel. Review of The Last Chord. The New York Times (17 May 1976).
Asserts that The Last Chord is "ill-conceived and unfocused," but admits that it contains "frequent bolts of Mr. Gordone's tremendously theatrical talent."
Kerr, Walter. "Not Since Edward Albee.…" The New York Times (18 May 1969).
Highly laudatory review of No Place to Be Somebody in which Kerr declares Gordone "the most astonishing new American playwright to come along since Edward Albee."
Kroll, Jack. "From the Muthah Lode." Newsweek 75 (25 May 1970): 95.
Brief biographical portrait of Gordone, written at the time of the initial success of No Place to Be Somebody.
Walcott, Ronald. "Some Notes on the Blues Style & Space." Black World 22 (December 1972): 4-29.
Analyzes Gabe Gabriel's verbal style in No Place to Be Somebody, characterizing him as "a conscious stylist who, as his time runs out, decides to examine the details of his life in light of the medium and the idiom he knows best, the word and the blues."
Wetzteon, Ross. "Theatre Journal." Village Voice (22 May 1969): 41.
Negative review of No Place to Be Somebody, in which the critic charges that the work is "a huge, sprawling, shapeless mess of a play, slopped all over the stage with appalling carelessness."
Additional coverage of Gordone's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Black Writers; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96, 150; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 55; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 4; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7; Discovering Authors: Modules—DramatistsModule; Major Twentieth-Century Writers.