Gordone, Charles 1925–1995
Charles Gordone 1925–1995
Playwright, director, actor, teacher
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Called “the most astonishing new American playwright to come along since Edward Albee” by Walter Kerr in the New York Times in 1969, Charles Gor-done was the first black to receive the Pulitzer Prize for drama. He won the award for No Place to Be Somebody, a play that explored the dynamics of black-white and black-black relationships through the story of a black saloonkeeper who tries to outwit white mobsters.
Gordone “pioneered a polemical form of race-conscious theater,” according to Robin Pogrebin in her New York Times obituary for the playwright in 1995. Although cited by some for his vivid capturing of the black experience in No Place to Be Somebody, Gordone denied that he was striving for a black consciousness. “I don’t write out of a black experience or a white experience; it’s American,” he told Jean W. Ross in an interview for Contemporary Authors in 1980. “If my color happens to be different from someone else’s, that doesn’t make any difference.”
After moving from Indiana to New York City in 1952, Gordone soon gave up his plans of a career as a singer. He found work as a waiter at Johnny Romero’s bar in
Greenwich Village, and before long found himself among the ranks of struggling actors. He proved his talent on the stage the next year by winning an Obie Award for his role in an Off-Broadway production of Of Mice and Men. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Gordone devoted much of his time to directing, with stagings of plays such as Rebels and Bugs, PeerGynt, Tobacco Road, and Detective Story. He made his first foray into writing plays with Little More Light Around the Place, a work co-written with Sidney Easton and that had its first performance at New York City’s Sheridan Square Playhouse in 1964. Around this time Gordone also became an activist in social issues, cofounding the Committee for the Employment of Negro Performers. As chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality’s committee for employment of Negro performers in the 1960s, he worked to get more blacks involved in the performing arts.
Gordone’s moment in the spotlight came in the late 1960s with his No Place to Be Somebody. Initially
At a Glance…
Born October 12, 925, in Cleveland, OH; died Novem ber 13, 1995, in College Station, TX, of cancer; son of William Gordone and Camille Morgan Gordone; one of seven children; married Jeanne Warner, 1959; children: Stephen, Judy, Leah-Carla, David; nine grandchildren.Education: California State Univ., Los Angeles, B.A., 1952; NYU; UCLA; Columbia Univ.
Military service: U.S. Air Force.
Became waiter and actor in NYC, 1952; co-founded the Committee for the Employment of Negro Performers, 1962; was instructor at Cell Block Theatre and Borden-town Detention Or., NJ, 1977-78; served as judge for Missouri Arts Council Playwriting Competition, 1978; instructor for New School for Social Research, New York, NY, 1978-79; served on faculty of Texas A&M Univ., 1986-95.
Awards and honors: Obie Award, Best Actor (Of Mice and Men), 1953; Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Los Angeles Critics Circle Award, Drama Desk Award (No Place to Be Somebody), 1970. Vernon Rice Award, 1970.
Memberships and affiliations: Ensemble Studio Theatre; Actors Studio; Comm.of Civil Disorders, 1967.
staged Off-Broadway, it struck a chord with audiences and critics for its vivid characterizations of a colorful cast of characters whose lives intersect in a New York City bar. Compared by a number of critics to the works of Eugene O’Neill, the story centers on a saloonkeeper and pimp named Johnny Williams who tries to wrest control of local rackets from the local syndicate. Williams enlists the support of a down-and-out actor, drugged-out bartender, ex-dancer, short-order cook, two prostitutes, and other characters in his quest, but is eventually shot and must give up ownership of his bar. Much of the material for the play was gleaned from Gordone’s own experience working in a tavern after he first came to New York City.
Although criticized by some for trying to cover too much dramatic territory, No Place to Be Somebody was for the most part praised. The New Yorker said that “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.”“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,” added Time magazine.
While many hailed Gordone as a new voice for the black experience, he continually maintained that his work could not be pinned down on racial grounds. “I’m a humanist; I’m not on a soapbox, a propagandist,” he told Ross. “The only story I have to tell is the human comedy.” He also stressed that whites who demonstrated no racial intolerance shouldn’t be made to feel responsible for the bigotry of the past. “I say we must not continue to try to make good, fair, just people feel guilty for four hundred years of racial prejudice in this country,” he said.
Favorable reviews soon transported No Place to Be Somebody from Off-Broadway to Broadway, and in 1970 it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize as well as other prestigious awards. All of this acclaim proved somewhat of a curse for Gordone, as none of his later works had anywhere near the same impact with either critics or audiences. Robin Pogrebin noted in the New York Times that “with so much success crowded into one year of his life, Mr. Gordone set a standard for himself that the rest of his career never again approximated.”
Gordone’s fame from No Place to Be Somebody helped him earn a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1971. Other plays of his produced in the 1970s included Willy Bignigga and Chumpanzee in 1970, Baba-Chops in 1975, and The Last Chord in 1977. In 1975 he began working with inmates at the Cell Block Theatre in Yardville and Bordentown Youth Correctional Institutions in New Jersey, using theater as rehabilitation therapy. He also wrote screenplays, among them a version for No Place to Be Somebody. Later in the 1970s he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Among his directorial credits during this time period were staged productions of Cures in 1978 and Under the Boardwalk in 1979.
During the last two decades of his life, Gordone devoted most of his time to directing plays and lecturing in community theaters around the country. In the late 1980s he voiced his opinion that minority actors should have more of a presence in realistic American plays. As a director he cast Hispanic actors as migrant laborers in a production of Of Mice and Men in Berkeley, California, as well as a Creole actor as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Gordone began a nine-year teaching affiliation with Texas A&M University in 1986. Known for his flamboyant appearance that featured wild hats and rainbow love beads, he remained a dramatic figure on the theater scene until his death from cancer in 1995.
Little More Light Around the Place (with Sidney
No Place to Be Somebody, 1967.Chumpanzee, 1970.The Last Chord, 1977.Anabiosis, 1980.
No Place to Be Somebody
From These Ashes
Edgar, Kathleen J., editor, Contemporary Authors, Volume 150, Gale Research, 1996, p. 180.
Gordone, Charles, No Place to Be Somebody, Bobbs-Merrill, 1970.
Lochner, Frances C, editor, Contemporary Authors, Volumes 93-96, Gale Research, 1980, pp. 184-187.
Ebony, July 1970, pp. 29-37; November 1971, p. 18.
Essence, October 1970, pp. 50-51.
Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1974, p. 41; July 17, 1987, Section 6, p. 1; November 21, 1995, p. A14.
New York Times, May 18,1969; November 19, 1995, p. 51.
New Yorker, May 17, 1969; January 10, 1970.
Time, May 17,1969; January 10, 1970; December 4, 1995, p. 29.
Village Voice, May 8, 1969; May 22, 1969.
Washington Post, November 20, 1995, p. B4.
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