No Place To Be Somebody
Reviewed by Lovell Estell III
Robey Theater Company
Through May 8
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.