The first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize for drama was Charles Gordone in 1970 for the dramatic work No Place To Be Somebody. Gordone took the theater world by storm and brought a new type of race consciousness to the stage. His play came on the scene in the 1960s when people embraced the emergence of long silenced African American voices. Its truths brought many awards to Gordone and the opportunity to produce more plays, screenplays, and creative projects. Although other works of equal attention eluded Gordone for the balance of his career, he continued to contribute to both stage and screen. In his later years he was a distinguished lecturer at Texas Agricultural & Mechanical University and continued to do some acting. Gordone saw himself not as a producer of African American or black theater, as it was called, but as someone who presented human experiences not splintered by race. In an interview with Susan Smith he stated, "I don't write out of a black experience or a white experience; it's American." Gordone left a body of work that was both multiracial and cross-cultural.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 12, 1925 with a mixed race heritage, Charles Edward Fleming was the son of William Fleming and Camille Morgan Fleming. The family later moved to Elkhart, Indiana, his mother's hometown. Also in the family were two other siblings, Jack and Stanley. Charles and Camille Fleming parted ways, and in 1930 Camille Fleming married William Lee Gordon. The entire family embraced the name Gordon and grew to include seven children. Gordone (the letter "e" was added later in life) had some challenges growing up in the Midwestern town of Elkhart. His stepfather was an auto mechanic and his mother was a former circus acrobat and dancer in Harlem's Cotton Club. William and Camille Gordon and their seven children lived on the white side of town which alienated racial identification particularly for their son and raised questions about his family's racial loyalties. Gordone often found himself rejected by the whites who dominated the town and by the blacks whom he knew. In spite of these difficulties, he excelled academically and as an athlete.
- Born in Cleveland, Ohio on October 12
- Receives B.A. in drama from California State University, Los Angeles
- Receives Obie Award for role in Of Mice and Men
- Marries Jeanne Warner
- Creates Committee for the Employment of Negro Actors, cofounder and chairman
- Produces first drama, Little More Light around the Place
- Appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to Commission on Civil Disorders; writes drama No Place To Be Somebody
- Receives Pulitzer Prize for drama, Critics Circle Award, and Drama Desk Award all for No Place To Be Somebody
- Receives grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters
- Obtains D. H. Lawrence Fellowship in New Mexico; supporting role in movie Angel Heart
- Begins teaching affiliation with Texas A&M University
- Dies in College Station, Texas on November 13
Years as an Actor
After graduating from high school, Gordone enrolled in the University of California at Los Angeles. After only one semester he left to join the United States Air Force. He earned the rank of second lieutenant. Gordone returned to Indiana after his discharge and later married Juanita Burton. The couple had two children, but the marriage failed due to Gordone's promiscuity and alcoholism. Gordone determined to make a change from Indiana as he continued to confront his identity and his place in the world. He decided to move to Los Angeles in 1945 and became a police officer. Using his G.I. Bill of Rights he was able to complete his education and enroll in Los Angeles City College to study music. By 1952, Gordone had earned a B.A. in drama from the Los Angeles State College. He later studied at New York University, and Columbia University. Soon after receiving his degree from Los Angeles State College, Gordone moved to New York to pursue his acting career. He was discouraged by his professor who advised that African American actors had no future in New York. Nonetheless, Gordone went to New York initially as a singer and found work waiting on tables at Johnny Romero's bar. It was not long before he was back on track and among the ranks of struggling actors. In viewing the Actors' Equity membership, Gordone noticed another actor named Charles Gordon. He decided to add an "e" to his surname to set him apart. The experiences and patrons that he encountered while working in Romero's served as the basis for his future play No Place To Be Somebody (1967). Using his many talents, Gordone for a time managed his own theater, the Vantage, in Queens. His first acting roles were in Moss Hart's Climate of Eden on Broadway and in Charles Sebree and Greer Johnson's Mrs. Patterson. The next year, 1953, he received an Obie Award for his performance as George in an all-black production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Gordone went on to play the title role in Wole Soyinka's The Trials of Brother Jero and in The Blacks, a play by Jean Genet. When the play The Blacks opened in 1961, Gordone was a part of the original cast. He was in the excellent company of Maya Angelou, Roscoe Lee-Browne, Godfrey Cambridge, Louis Gossett Jr., James Earl Jones, Helen Martin, Raymond St Jacques, and Cicely Tyson. It was during this period in 1959 that Gordone met and married Jeanne Warner. Eight years into the relationship the couple separated due to Gordone's heavy drinking, but they never divorced.
Gordone involved himself in various aspects of the theater and film making, which included directing, producing, and writing. As a director Gordone took on many diverse projects, such as Rebels and Bugs (1958), Peer Gynt (1959), Faust (1959), and Tobacco Road and Detective Story (1960). He was associate producer of the film Nothing but the Man in 1964, while at the same time he saw the opening of Little More Light Around the Place, which Gordone co-authored with Sidney Easton. The play, an adaptation of a novel by Easton of the same title, had its first performance at New York City's Sheridan Square Playhouse. As Gordone's career developed he became more interested in policies regarding his craft and the involvement of African Americans in the performing arts. Godfrey Cambridge and Gordone co-founded the Committee for the Employment of Negro Performers, while Gordone chaired a similar committee for the Congress on Racial Equality. In 1967 Gordone was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the research team of the Commission on Civil Disorders.
No Place To Be Somebody Brings Pulitzer
Using his experiences as a waiter in Greenwich village, Gordone wrote No Place To Be Somebody. He began work on the play during the same period he performed in The Blacks written by Jean Genet, who was a formative influence on Gordone's dramaturgy. After trying for two years to get his play produced, Gordone persuaded the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Experimental theater to give it a preliminary run. The original cast included several actors who would go on to have high profile careers: Paul Benjamin, Nathan George, and Ron O'Neal. The play was first presented at the Sheridan Square Playhouse in New York in 1967. It was performed off-Broadway at the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater on May 2, 1969 and on-Broadway at the American National Theater on December 30, 1969. The play ran until October 18, 1970 for 312 performances and was met with critical as well as financial success. Gordone was heralded by Walter Kerr in the New York Times as "the most astonishing new American playwright to come along since Edward Albee." In 1970 Gordone became the first African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Although the play was regarded as a pioneer form of race-consciousness that explored the black experience, Gordone saw it as an American experience. He maintained that his work should not be from only a racial perspective, for he was above all else a humanist. The play, which consists of character portraits of schemers, dreamers, and losers in a grungy Greenwich Village bar, owes as much to the saloon drama of Eugene O'Neill as it does to the African American theater renaissance of the 1960s. Critics also noted the play's relationship to Greek, Elizabethan, and Jacobean drama.
Subtitled "A Black Black Comedy" the story in No Place To Be Somebody centers on saloon keeper and hustler Johnny Williams, who tries to take over the control of a local racket from the local syndicate. Coving a period of fifteen years, Williams becomes the victim of his own awareness of black power. Involving two prostitutes, a short-order cook, a down-and-out actor, a drugged out bartender, and other characters, the play explores the question of identity and how these people represent "everyman". Each is seeking a way to fulfill dreams. The language and experiences come from an urban jungle unleashed by the fury that surrounded black-white and black-black relationships. Johnny Williams, the main character, is unsuccessful in his plan and is ultimately shot by one of the black characters in the play, Gabriel, a light-skinned black writer/actor, seeking his own racial identity. He is rejected by blacks because he is too light and rejected by whites because he is black. Gabriel has several monologues and in some ways becomes Gordone's spokesperson. He expresses the tragedy of racism and how the negative equation of color to value and worth must be abandoned in order to achieve a more human perspective. Gabriel is more of an observer than a participant. He shoots Williams at the request of Machine Dog, a black militant, a figment of Gabriel's imagination.
Although many critics noted the play's flaws, overall it was praised for the characterization and dialogue, along with the sense of life and intimacy it conveys. The language was both rough and eloquent. Criticism from African American reviewers was favorable, but many found evidences of self-hate and contempt for black people. Most could agree that even in despair, black or white, the aspect of hope continued to be evident in the play. In addition to the Pulitzer, the play won the Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award, and the Vernon Rice Award all in 1970. The universal appeal resulted in the play being translated into Spanish, Russian, French, and German.
Theatrical, Community and Educational Projects
Bolstered by his earlier success, Gordone presented a tryout performance of his play Gordone Is a Mutha in 1970. The work was a collection of five poems and a monologue. It was presented at Carnegie Recital Hall in May 1970, featuring Gordone. Neither this work nor any of the efforts that followed ever received the attention and acclaim that No Place To Be Somebody received. Gordone referred to Gordone Is a Mutha as a work that deals with the souls of black people. It portrays black male social castration and presents a humorous description of a mother's preparation for a visit by the welfare lady. The play, which was to be presented on Broadway in the spring of 1971, never appeared, but it was published in 1973 in The Best Short Plays edited by Stanley Richards. In 1971 Gordone earned a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He continued to write plays and over the years presented works such as Worl's Champeen Lip dansuh an' Watah Mellon Jooglah (World's Champion Lip Dancer and Water Melon Juggler, 1969), performed at the Other Stage; Willy Bignigga and Chumpanzee (1970), first produced in New York City at Henry Street Settlement New Federal Theatre; Baba-Chops (1975), performed at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in New York City; The Last Chord (1976), a melodrama about an African American church official who becomes involved with the mafia, first performed at the Billie Holiday Theater in New York City; Anabiosis (1979), staged by the St. Louis's City Players; Roan Brown and Cherry, produced in 1988; and the one act play The Cowmen. Gordone also wrote poetry and produced a cassette in 1978 that included excerpts from No Place To Be Somebody.
In 1975 Gordone began working with inmates in Cell Block Theatre in Yardville and Bordentown Youth Correctional Institutions in New Jersey using theater as rehabilitation therapy. One production staged toward the rehabilitation process was Clifford Odet's Golden Boy. Returning his attention to New York in 1978 Gordone taught at the New School for Social Research. During this time his director credits included Curse (1978) and Under the Boardwalk (1979). He also had a lead role in Ralph Bakshi's controversial 1975 part-animated film Coonskin, which was re-released in 1987 as Streetfight on video. The video, which has the voices of Barry White, Gordone (in the lead role), Scatman Crothers, and Philip Thomas, is gritty and even offensive in its content for many audiences. The story follows the exploits of a black rabbit that comes from the rural South to New York and ends up ruling the streets of Harlem. This animated fantasy received nominal attention when it was first run. By 1981 Gordone had moved to California and was writing screenplays in Hollywood for Paramount Pictures. His credits include Under the Boardwalk, From These Ashes, Liliom, and The W.A.S.P. Gordone continued to support more non-traditional casting for roles. He strongly believed that actors of different ethnic groups could be integrated into traditionally white roles and not lose their unique identity. Casting along this line would offer to dramatic effect the diversity of American society and show a cross-cultural perspective and not simply a multiracial one. While working on A Streetcar Named Desire in 1982 Gordone met Susan Kouyomjian, a stage and film producer, who was his companion for the last thirteen years of his life. Together they co-founded American Stage in Berkeley where Gordone directed numerous productions.
Gordone was awarded the D. H. Lawrence Fellowship in Taos, New Mexico in 1985 and two years later became lecturer in the theater department at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. This same year he had his final movie credit in a supporting role in Angel Heart. After five years and a less than tranquil experience in the theater department, Gordone moved into teaching play-writing and literature surveys. He spent nine years at Texas A&M. He also devoted time to traveling around the country, directing and producing plays in community theaters. Gordone immersed himself in Native American culture and poetry which sparked and inspired his creativity.
Although an active participant in the performing arts and a champion for African American participation, Gordone questioned the separation of theater into racial and social categories. In his own casting he placed Hispanic performers as migrant laborers in Of Mice and Men and a Creole actor as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. He advocated for the American theater and had no allegiance to the concept of the black theater. By embracing the universal at a time when silenced voices were struggling for recognition in many cultures Gordone felt as though he lacked a true place of his own. In an interview captured by Touchstone, cowboy poet Buck Ramsey said it best: Gordone had "no place to be." Gordone's diverse and eclectic approach were reflected in his work as well as his attire. He was known for his flamboyant appearance that might feature wild hats and rainbow love beads. Gordone died November 13, 1995 from liver cancer.
After his death his work received high regard from his peers. He was memorialized in various places, such as the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater, the Canadian River Breaks of the Texas Panhandle, and the Gene Autry Ranch. His uniqueness and dedication was also celebrated by an annual Gordone Award in fiction, poetry, and playwriting at Texas A&M University. In song, he has been memorialized by his daughter Leah-Carla Gordone on her CD Butterfly Child (1998). Gordone had four children: two daughters, Judy and Leah-Carla, and two sons, Stephen and David.
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Lean'tin L. Bracks