By Darlene Donloe
Charles Gordone once said his Pulitzer Prize winning three-act play, No Place To Be Somebody, was “about country folk who had migrated to the big city, seeking the urban myth of success, only to find disappointment, despair and death.”
The play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1970. It’s important to note that it was the first time the drama Pulitzer had gone to an African American.
Those “country folk” he spoke about come to life in the Robey Theatre Company’s production of the show, currently playing through May 8, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
No Place To Be Somebody is raw, it’s real, it’s unremorseful and it’s in-your-face. Cordone obviously wrote it to make a point, to make the audience uneasy and, more importantly, to make the audience feel. It pulls back the curtain on a forgotten underbelly segment of society as they triumphantly and sometimes tragically, deal with everything from civil rights, acceptance, dreams deferred, race relations, power, mortality, morality and more.
This show is a classic. This was Gordone’s last theatrical installment. The original 1969 production comes some 47 years later and the gang’s all here.
There’s Johnny, Gabe, Sweets Crane, Shanty, Cora, Evie, Melvin Judge Bolton, Machine Dog, Dee, Sergeant Cappaletti, Mike Maffucci and Mary Lou. All of them wear their flaws on their sleeves, but aren’t afraid to dream.
Some of those characters are aptly played by abled actors assembled by Director Ben Guillory.
The play takes place in Johnny’s Bar.
Sammie Wayne IV
Johnny is the center of the show. He is played, superbly, by multiple NAACP Theatre Awards winner, Sammie Wayne IV. Johnny is a small time hood and pimp whose no-nonsense temperament is as scary as the underworld he lives in. If he has his way, Johnny, by any means necessary, will head his own black Mafia. He has pessimistically and pompously lived by the white man’s tyrannical laws – and has had enough!!! Wayne plays the role with eagerness, cockiness, sureness and a certain panache that makes Johnny most assuredly despicable, but at times, unnervingly appealing. Johnny, who is too cool for the room, recognizes his own charm.
“I rassle with light’nin, put a cap on a thunder! Set every mammy-jammer in the graveyard on a wonder! I grapple with lions! Put knots in they tails! Sleep on broken glass, an’ for breakfast, eat nails! I’m a ba-a-a-d mother-for ya!”---Johnny Williams
For 10 years Johnny has been literally holding down the fort while his mentor, Sweets Crane (Hawthorne James), did time in prison. Johnny has been waiting for the day when he and Sweets, who raised him like a son and taught him the ways of the streets, would reunite and build their criminal empire. Johnny wants to lay claim to their future – now! To do that he has to outmaneuver the white Mafia who has a stranglehold on the neighborhood.
(l-r) Leith Burke and Sammie Wayne IV
Johnny’s plans for world domination go awry after Sweets shows up sick and a skeleton of his former self. With a devastating medical diagnosis, Sweets wants no part of his former life. He’s content to live out his days without the drama and violence he once embraced. His attempt to reform Johnny fails miserably.
Hawthorne James as Sweets Crane
James (Five Heartbeats), a respected veteran thespian who easily engulfs a stage with his commanding presence, plays the role of Sweets in a surprisingly over the top performance that dilutes the character and throws the show off balance. Had Director Ben Guillory pulled the reigns, even slightly, on that interpretation, it would have saved the intent and made the character palatable.
Then there is the motley crew of regulars that frequent or work for the bar, who are unapologetically fractured, yet focused on individual dreams of something better for themselves.
There is Gabe (Leith Burke/The Have and Have Nots) a hungry for life writer and actor, who also serves as the narrator for the show. His poignant speeches, which break the fourth wall, ties the show together rhythmically. Burke waxes poetic effectively.
Cordone has conjured some colorful, well-defined characters whose thread of human existence is fragile, but still matters. Each character is allowed space to breathe as they work out their varied stories. All have voices that have been unheard. All have aspirations that at moments in time, seemed unattainable.
(l-r) Sammie Wayne IV and Mary Lou Bolton
There is wide-eyed Cora (Kacie Rogers), who has her sights set on marriage and a bar worker named Shanty, who is Cora’s boyfriend, but would rather be playing the drums. Then there is a disillusioned hooker named Dee (Allison Blaize), who is the main woman in Johnny’s stable, but wants to marry him and get out of the life. Her friend and fellow hooker is Evie (Saadiqa-Kamille), who somehow makes it out of the life and into a job at IBM. There is a ditsy sophisticate named Mary Lou Bolton (Allison Blaize), who is the daughter of a judge, but likes to get down and dirty. Melvin Smeltz (Matt Jennings) is a busboy who only wants to dance, while Machine Dog (Ray Dennis) is like the smoke monster on Lost. Mike Maffucci (Gianluca Malacrino) and Jude Bolton (Darrel Philip), play the Mafia – who want Johnny to curb his desire - so they can continue being the Mafia.
There are several themes coursing through this show. It’s intense, dramatic, comedic, heartbreaking, unrequited and everything in between. It’s the good, the bad and the ugly story about life and all of the melodrama that goes with it.
Cordone’s tome is poetic blues set to real world problems. It’s uneasy and uncomfortable. It’s much like a car wreck that you can’t help but watch play out.
Director Ben Guillory has assembled a solid cast headed by Sammie Wayne IV and Leith Burke, whose gutsy and hearty performances push the story forward. There are also terrific performances from Kacie Rogers, Ben Landmesser and Matt Jennings.
(l-r) Sammie Wayne IV and Ray Dennis
While the well-paced show is somewhat dated, it still holds up, for the most part, under the temperate hand of Director Ben Guillory. There are some moments when the show lags and there are some casting choices that bring a different texture to the show for anyone who has seen previous incarnations.
Tom Meleck’s bar room set is stylish. Michael D. Ricks lighting, Naila Aladdin Sanders’ costumes and Julio Hanson’s music/sound design complete the production.
The Robey production of No Place To Be Somebody is a worthy opponent.
The cast includes: Sammie Wayne IV, Allison Blaize, Leith Burke, Hawthorne James, Matt Jennings, Saadiqa Kamillah, Gianluca Malacrino, Ray Dennis, Monty Montgomery, Darrell Phillip, Kacie Rogers, Ben Landmesser and Meghan Lang.
No Place To Be Somebody is written by Gordone and directed and produced by Ben Guillory. Presented by Robey Theatre Company in association with Los Angeles Theatre Center.
No Place To Be Somebody, Los Angeles Theatre Center, Theatre 4, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, CA 90013, 8 p.m., Thur.-Sat; 3 p.m. Sun. Also, 7 p.m., Mon., April 18. Through May 8; $20-$30; 866 811-4111 or www.thelatc.org.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, with one 10 minute intermission.
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (oh, yeah) and E (excellent), No Place To Be Somebody gets an L (likeable).