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Sammie Wayne IV, Meghan Renee Lang in 'No Place to Be Somebody' (photo by Niketa Caleme Harris)
Sammie Wayne IV, Meghan Renee Lang in ‘No Place to Be Somebody’ (photo by Niketa Caleme Harris)

No Place To Be Somebody

Reviewed by Lovell Estell III
Robey Theater Company
Through May 8

RECOMMENDED

In the pantheon of African-American playwrights, the name Charles Gordone isn’t as well-known as others like Lorraine Hansberry or August Wilson. But he was the first black playwright to receive a Pulitzer Prize, and this 1969 drama was the first off-Broadway play to receive the award.

The play is an edgy mix of civil rights era Black Power agitprop and gangster saga and would doubtless seem dated to contemporary audiences — but it still speaks to pressing issues of our times, particularly America’s troubling racial divide. On one level, it takes place in the mind of actor-playwright Gabe Gabriel (Leith Burke), who occasionally steps out of his role and plays observer, delivering soliloquies which accentuate the play’s simmering frustrations and anger.

Events take place in a New York City bar (impressively devised by Tom Meleck) owned by Johnny Williams (Sammie Wayne IV), who is also a pimp. Johnny is a black man who harbors no illusions about what that means in America, and is looking to escape the mob’s extortive grasp and start his own big-time racket once his mentor, Sweets Crane, gets out of prison.

The regulars at the bar are redolent of those in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” a jumble of damaged dreamers, hopefuls and hangers on. In addition to Gabe, there’s Shanty Mulligan (Ben Landmesser), a white boy who cleans up (“nigger work,” as he blurts out at one point), but with aspirations of being a drummer, Cora (Kacie Rogers), who imagines the ideal life as marrying white, and for a time is involved with Shanty, and Mel (Matt Jennings) who dreams of being a dancer but works at Johnny’s as a cook.

Then there are Johnny’s streetwalkers: Dee (Allison Blaize), a white woman in love with Johnny, no-nonsense Evie (Saadiqa Kamille), who’s as good with a verbal jab as she is with a razor blade, and Mary Lou (Meghan Renee Lang), a corrupt judge’s daughter who falls prey to Johnny’s poisonous charm and her own irresistible curiosity for the forbidden fruit. Sweets’ much anticipated return, however, turns out to be a bitter disappointment to Johnny. Now a crippled, wheezing, broken old man, Sweets wants out of the life of the hustler, and tries unsuccessfully to reform Johnny, which ultimately leads to an ugly ending.

Though not a perfect play, this revival under Ben Guillory’s direction features solid performances, even in the minor roles. A dense malevolence and cynicism informs Wayne’s performance, and Hawthorne is delightfully unhinged as Sweets. Gordone’s superlative ear for gritty streetwise dialogue and his assemblage of flawed, all-too-human characters are its strongest elements. Michael D. Ricks provides a subtly effective lighting schema.

 

Robey Theater Company at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. through May 8. (866) 811-4111 or www.thelatc.org Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one ten minute intermission.

 

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