Charles Gordone: Finding His Place to Be Somebody

Charles Gordone
Charles Gordone, accessed Blackpast.org.

The unified efforts of the Civil Rights Movement began to fracture when in 1966 a new strategy and ideology emerged, known as the Black Power Movement.  This new movement also influenced the development of the Black Arts Movement.  According to historian Ann Chambers, the Black Arts Movement did not speak for the entire black community; however, the movement gave a “new sense of racial pride to many young African-American artists.” One African-American writer and actor who opposed the Black Arts Movement was Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Charles Gordone.

Gordone was born Charles Fleming in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 12, 1925.  In 1927, his mother moved with her children to Elkhart, Indiana.  By 1931, she married, changing Charles Fleming’s name to Charles Gordon.  He attended Elkhart High School and, although popular at school, faced racial discrimination while living in Indiana because of the divide between white and African-American children.  According to Gordon, both races rejected him.  White children avoided him because he was black, and the town’s African-American community shunned him because his family “lived on the other side of the tracks and . . . thought we [the Gordons] were trying to be white.”

After serving in the US Army Air Corps, he enrolled in Los Angeles City College, and graduated in 1952. Gordon stated that he majored in performing arts because “I couldn’t keep myself away from the drama department.”  His experiences in college influenced his outlook on race in America.  Gordon stated “I was always cast in subservient or stereotypical roles,” and he began wondering why he was not given prominent parts in Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello plays. After graduation, Gordon moved to New York City. Once on the east-coast, Charles Gordon added an “e” to the end of his name, and became Charles Gordone when he joined Actor’s Equity Association; a labor union for theater actors and stage managers.

Supporters of the Committee for the Employment of Negro Performers picketing a theater in New York City, 1962, courtesy of gettyimages.co.uk.

Two months after Gordone’s arrival in New York, he performed in Moss Hart’s Broadway play, The Climate of Eden, the “first of many Broadway and off-Broadway productions” for Gordone. He soon realized that black actors had a hard time earning a living in the entertainment business, and he claimed he “began to get really intense” about the lack of acting jobs for African Americans.  He started conversing with many “young black actors,” and soon started picketing theaters on Broadway for better job opportunities. Similarly, fellow Hoosier actor William Walker, who portrayed Reverend Sykes in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, became a fierce civil rights advocate in Hollywood after being relegated to roles as a domestic servant because of his race. Walker worked with actor and future president Ronald Reagan to obtain more roles for African Americans.

Around 1963, Gordone became the chairman of the Committee for Employment of Negro Performers (CENP). Gordone claimed in 1962 and 1963 that television producers feared the withdrawal of corporate sponsorship if they “put Negroes in their shows” and that “discrimination took more forms in the entertainment field than in any other industry.”

Although the Civil Rights Movement had made extensive strides toward improving equality among the races, civil rights laws did not deter de facto segregation, or forms of segregation not “codified in law but practiced through unwritten custom.” In most of America, social norms excluded African Americans from decent schools, exclusive clubs, suburban housing divisions, and “all but the most menial jobs.”  Federal laws also did not address the various factors causing urban black poverty. As racial tension mounted throughout the United States, Gordone struggled to survive in New York City.  During the last half of the 1950s, out of work and broke, Gordone took a job as a waiter for Johnny Romero in the first African-American owned bar in Greenwich Village.  His experiences there inspired his play No Place to Be Somebody, which he began scripting in 1960.

During the next seven years writing his play, Gordone sporadically worked in the theater industry.  He was an original member of the cast for Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show.  The playwright, a white man, intended the play for an all African-American cast and a white audience.  He states in his script that “One evening an actor asked me to write a play for an all-black cast.  But what exactly is a black?  First of all, what’s his color?”

In The Blacks: A Clown Show, African Americans wage war against the “white power structure,” and the oppressed evolve into the oppressor. Warner noted that Genet’s play put Gordone “in touch with his black anger.”  In 1969, Gordone claimed that his experience as part of the cast changed his life because the play dealt with problems about race, enabled him to confront the “hatred and fear I [Gordone] had inside me about being black,” and introduced a talented group of African-American actors to the entertainment media including James Earl Jones and Maya Angelou.

1970 play bill, accessed hollywoodmemorabilia.com

Gordone finished his own play, No Place to Be Somebody, in 1967. The plot of the play revolves around an African-American bar owner named Johnny Williams.  Other characters include a mixed-race actor, a black homosexual dancer, a Jewish strumpet, a black prostitute, an Irish hipster, an aging black hustler, a member of the Italian mafia, an influential white judge, and the judge’s idealistic daughter. Johnny Williams, is a tavern-owner, pimp and wannabe racketeer.  His foil, Gabriel, also an African-American, is an intellectual struggling to be accepted as a legitimate actor.

According to a New York Times reviewer, the characters are forced to try and survive in a society controlled by white standards.  Johnny Williams possesses a desire to become “somebody” in Italian-run organized crime; Gabriel fails in his attempts to be cast in African American roles because he is light-skinned. The characters’ actions in No Place to Be Somebody are influenced by racial and cultural pressures directed towards characters of opposing races.  According to Gordone, “It [the play] is the story of power, about somebody who is stifled who was born in a subculture and feels the only out is through the subculture.”  By the end of the play, most of the characters fail in obtaining their goals because they have all set their “ambitions in excess of their immediate limitations.”

Gordone originally offered the play to the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC); an acting group rooted in the Black Arts Movement. He claimed the co-founder, Robert Hooks, turned it down because the NEC did not allow white actors in their theater troupe. Gordone and Warner produced a “showcase version” of the play at the Sheridan Square Playhouse in 1967, but “the response wasn’t too good.”  Gordone and Warner lost all their money in the venture. But in 1969, the play was accepted for the “Other Stage Workshop,” in Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, at the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Charles Gordone
Gordone directing his Pulitzer Prize-winning play at Joe Papp’s Public Theatre in New York, courtesy of Ebony.com.

No Place to Be Somebody opened on May 4, 1969 to mixed reviews.  New York Times reviewer, Walter Kerr, compared Gordone’s work to Edward Albee’s masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Other reviews called the play “engrossing,” “powerful,” and hailed it as one of the “unique” plays of 1969.  On the contrary, influential African-American critic, Clayton Riley, blasted the play’s poor production and directorial choices.  Riley also questioned Gordone’s “incomprehensible” dialogue, depiction of “self-hatred,” “contempt for Black people,” and his “desire to say too much.”  Yet, Riley did state that Gordone possessed “splendid talents.”  According to Gordone, Riley’s review “hurt Riley more than me [Gordone] … brother Clayton is uptight.  He can’t face it that The [white] Man is helping one of his brothers.”

Headline from The [Arkansas] Hope Star, May 6, 1970, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.
After the play’s opening, No Place to Be Somebody quickly moved to the Anspacher Theater for an extended period of time and opened for a limited run on Broadway in the ANTA Theater. Exactly one year after the play opened at the Shakespeare Festival, May 4, 1970, Gordone won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  The play was the first off-Broadway winner, and Gordone became known as the first African-American playwright to win the award.  Yet he did not appreciate being categorized as a member of “black theater” or the Black Arts Movement, unlike Indianapolis poet Etheridge Knight.

According to a 1982 interview, Gordone’s views on race “alienated many blacks.” Gordone argued, in a 1970 New York Times editorial piece, that writers like LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) should write about more than “how badly the black man is treated and how angry he is.”  Gordone believed such theater intensified the split amongst the races, and he questioned “Is black really ‘beautiful’?  Or is that beauty always hidden underneath the anger and resentment?”  According to Gordone, Jones’ writing was “egotistical, smug, angry (never violent), frightened, and damning of every white man in the world,” and Gordone took offense that Jones was “attempting to speak for all people of color in this country.”

According to Mance Williams, Gordone opposed the Black Arts Movement’s notion that the “Black Experience is a singular and unique phenomenon.”  Gordone believed that African-American culture was one part of the larger American Culture, reasoning that without the “white experience,” there cannot be a “black experience.” Williams states that Gordone believed the races were interrelated, and helped create the unique qualities that defined the “white” and “black” races. In a 1992 interview, Gordone said “We need to redefine multiculturalism.  There’s only one culture—the American culture, and we have many ethnic groups who contribute.”

Poet Amiri Baraka, a major figure in the Black Arts Movement, courtesy of Amherstmedia.org.

One possible explanation for Gordone’s belief in multiculturalism is the fact that he claimed his ancestral makeup consisted of “part Indian, part French, part Irish, and part nigger,” and he jokingly called himself “a North American mestizo.” Williams claims the playwright deemed the “color problem” could only be resolved through cooperation between the races, and that is why Gordone shied away from any radical political movements that could further divide the races.  However, according to Gordone, his exclusion from the Black Arts Movement left him “Dazed, hurt, confused, and filled with self-pity.”

Gordone claimed his professional success put tremendous pressure on him. Winning the Pulitzer Prize made Gordone unhappy because he was acclaimed as a writer, rather than a director. According to Gordone, “every time you sit down at a typewriter, you’re writing a Pulitzer Prize. You’re always competing with yourself and you have to write something that’s as good or better.” In 1969, he began drinking heavily, hoping “get the muse out of the bottle” after the “long struggle.” During Gordone’s battle with alcoholism, he still worked in the theater industry.  He got involved with a group called Cell Block Theater, which used theater as therapy as part of an inmate rehabilitation program.

In 1981, Gordone met Susan Kouyomjian and in 1982 they founded The American Stage, an organization devoted to casting minorities into non-traditional roles, in Berkeley, California.  The American Stage productions included A Streetcar Named Desire with a Creole actor playing Stanley; Of Mice and Men with two Mexican-American actors playing George and Lenny; and The Night of the Iguana with an African American actor in the lead role of Shannon.  According to Gordone, he and Kouyomjian never overtly wanted to provide more opportunities for “black, Hispanic and Asian actors,” but Gordone said “it is now very much my thing.”  Their goal was to logically cast actors “so that you don’t insult the work’s integrity.”  Gordone believed “innovative casting enhances the plays,” and makes them so exciting that “it’s almost like you’re seeing them for the first time.”

Charles Gordone, photo by Susan Kouyomjian Gordone, accessed African American Registry.

In a 1988 interview, Gordone continued commenting about the portrayal of race in contemporary literature and theater.  Susan Harris Smith asked if theater critics viewed Gordone as “black first and a writer second?”  He replied “Yes” and commented the practice was “racist.”  He claimed he was a playwright trying to “write about all people . . . and to say I [Gordone] have a black point of view is putting me in a corner.” He believed African-American critics finally reached a “significant realization” about the theme of No Place to Be Somebody, that “if blacks walk willingly into the mainstream without scrutiny their identity will die or they will go mad.”

In 1987, Texas A&M University hired Gordone to teach in the English and Speech Communications Department. There, Gordone began embracing the American-western lifestyle or “cowboy culture.”  The playwright stated, “The West had always represented a welcoming place for those in search of a new life,” and he found a “spirit of newfound personal freedom” within the American West.  Gordone remained in Texas until his death on November 16, 1995.  Friends and family scattered his ashes in a “traditional cowboy ceremony, with a riderless horse” near Spring Creek Ranch, Texas.

Learn more about Gordone via the Indiana Historical Bureau’s historical marker.

Emmett Forest Branch: Short Term Governor, Long Term Proponent for the People

 

Governor Emmett F. Branch, Governors’ Portrait Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

Emmett Forest Branch may have only completed part of a term as Governor of Indiana, but he worked continuously for the people of the state. He constantly urged them to have faith in the Republican policy of “expansion of the agencies of government necessary to meet the requirements of the population.” By this, he meant improving schools, roads, and care of the state’s wards. As lieutenant governor and governor, Branch advocated specifically for these reforms.

Born in Martinsville to Elliott Branch and Alice Parks in 1874, Branch attended Martinsville High School and graduated from Indiana University in 1896. Branch’s father possessed a unique sense of humor, naming his children Olive, Leafy, Emmett Forest, and Frank Oak, to create his own family “tree.” Branch inherited this humor, inserting jokes into stories he shared. One story in particular went the twentieth-century version of “viral,” and was printed in newspapers across the country. In this story, Branch recalled one of his walks while in cadet school. He came across a man in need of money. Sure that he did not have a cent on him, Branch told the man he could have any money found while turning his pockets inside out. A silver dollar fell out, and Branch returned to his room confused. He later found out that he had worn his roommate’s pants by mistake.

Upon graduating from IU, Branch returned home to Martinsville to practice law. However, when the Spanish-American War began in 1898, he put his career on hold to enlist. After the war, Branch was elected to three terms in the Indiana House of Representatives in 1903, 1905, and 1907. While serving as representative, Branch worked for reform via the shippers’ railway commission bill, opposing big corporations. He is quoted as saying:

The time is past when the people should be taxed to further the rich corporations because the latter are now in a condition to care for themselves.

He also introduced legislation to make automated voting machines mandatory in an attempt to solve the problem of vote-selling and vote-buying, abolishing election frauds and election contests. During his 1907 term, he served as Speaker of the House. As speaker, Branch supported temperance reform, especially the local county option bill, which allowed each county to choose whether they should be a dry county. After his speakership, Branch continued to practice law in Martinsville. Once the United States entered World War I in 1917, Branch again enlisted, serving as colonel in the 151st United States Infantry.

“Republican Candidates,” Brazil Daily Times (Ind.), October 15, 1920, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.

In 1921, Branch was sworn in as lieutenant governor under Governor Warren McCray. His first act as lieutenant governor was to end the practice of “omnibus bills” in the Indiana legislature. This practice was used to vote on several bills at once. Branch is quoted saying “It is what I would call ‘guessing them off.’ Gentlemen, guessing off law that is to be fastened upon the people of Indiana is not right.” He closed with another statement: “We should first take care of the unfortunates in the institutions and then put Indiana where she belongs in the educational world.” Later in 1924 while discussing taxes, Branch asserted that, “You cannot have better roads, better schools, better teachers and better care of the unfortunates unless you pay the price.” These two statements encapsulate the position that Branch took as a Republican lawmaker toward improvements in the state.

“Memorial Day Bill Defeated,” The Daily Republican (Rushville, Ind.), January 26, 1921, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Two issues arose in the General Assembly during Branch’s time as lieutenant governor with much debate by the public and the assembly. In 1921 and 1923, a “Memorial Day” bill was introduced that sought to prohibit automobile races, baseball games, and other sports on Memorial Day when admission is charged. This bill would end the Indianapolis 500, an Indianapolis Memorial Day weekend tradition since 1911. The bill was not passed in 1921, but was returned to a vote in 1923, where it then passed. But Governor McCray vetoed the bill, stating that he had “a sacred regard for the traditions and the purpose of Memorial day” and that the bill was “class legislation and therefore unconstitutional.”

The second issue that arose was the repeal of the 1919 anti-German language laws, passed in part because of World War I. Representative Waldemar Eickhoff introduced the bill in an attempt to remove discrimination against the German language. The bill eventually passed, but not without a rider attached to it that prevented “the teaching of any foreign language, including Spanish, Latin, and French.” The discussion of this bill became so intense that Branch broke his gavel on the podium trying to restore order.

The Indianapolis News, April 29, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Scandal hit the governor’s office in April 1924, when McCray was convicted on charges of “using the mails in furtherance of a scheme to defraud [his creditors],” and resigned from office. Branch became Governor of Indiana on April 30, 1924 as soon as McCray’s resignation became official. He was the first alum of Indiana University to become governor. With the little time that he did have in office, Branch attempted to build upon McCray’s goals. But before he did this, he had to investigate the administration to ensure that McCray had not involved or compromised the government. He ensured that all departments under the control of McCray were investigated before proceeding as governor.

“Will be Indiana Governor,” The Indianapolis News, April 29, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Branch was a firm believer that education was a principal foundation of the government and that Indiana’s education system needed more support from the citizens to improve this system. He believed that better education meant a better citizenry, and that spending more on education would ultimately improve Indiana as a state. Republicans at the time pushed for a “county unit of education,” which would create a county board of education responsible for tasks such as locating schools and appointing teachers. Through this system, supporters hoped that the school system would have a more uniform quality throughout the state and a fair tax rate in the county. True to his Republican ideals, Branch recommended that the county unit of education be implemented via the seventy-fourth general assembly in his speech on January 8, 1925, saying “I think it should be done for I believe it a step for better education and that is one essential we must not lost sight of in building up our government.”

Muncie Evening Press, December 12, 1925, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

In October 1924, Governor Branch called a statewide safety conference to see what could be done to lessen the number of people being killed at railroad grade crossings. He hoped that in doing so it would save lives. Branch ensured that all delegates at the conference represented all interests in the subject—railroads, automobile clubs, etc. In his message to the Indiana General Assembly in 1925, he reported the solutions found by the conference members. Branch suggested creating a department of safety. The public service commission should be given the “power to require railroad companies to install and operate flash-light signals, signs, or other modern signal devices at railroad crossings over highways in the country.” Other suggestions included enacting a safety zone and a “Stop, Look, Listen” law to be enacted. Along with this, he was actively involved in extending the state highway system, believing, like many Republicans, that improved transportation would improve the economy.

“Branch Issues May Day Proclamation,” The Indianapolis Star, May 1, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Further advocating for the “unfortunates,” Branch’s first official statement as governor urged people to observe May Day as “Child Health Day” for the improvement of the health and happiness of children. He further supported healthcare for children by dedicating the new Riley Hospital for Children on October 7, 1924, the birthday of James Whitcomb Riley and namesake of the hospital. As lieutenant governor, Branch oversaw a law passed providing for the establishment of the hospital. In a letter to Hugh M. Landon, president of the Riley Memorial Association, Branch wrote, “I earnestly recommend that the citizens observe the week of October 1 to 7 as ‘Riley Hospital Week’ and make such plans to further aid this institution as their voluntary judgement and good faith in childhood may justify.” In January 1925, Branch boasted to the Indiana General Assembly that “the work being done there for the unfortunate little folks is of the highest quality.”

Support of children’s health was not his only concern—he also continued McCray’s efforts for a new state reformatory at Pendleton and relocation of the Indiana School for the Blind. He defended both of these decisions in his speech at the Republican Convention in May 1924. He encapsulated the speech in a pamphlet titled “The Truth About Your State Government,” in which he discussed the purchasing power of the currency and what taxes pay for in the state. He asserted that the Republicans took over the reins of government from “the most incompetent, inefficient and costly” Democrats in Washington and had been working to reverse the problems they caused. While this seems rather blunt, Branch explained how money was being spent and where in terms that non-politicians could understand. He ended his pamphlet on a good note by stating why he has faith in the people and in his party.

Indiana Bell Telephone Company Equipment Truck No. 467B, 1923, courtesy Bass Photo Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

Unlike his predecessor, the most scandalous thing that Branch dealt with was the Indiana Bell Telephone Company’s attempt to force higher rates on customers without the approval of the public service commission. Branch “demonstrated his willingness to ‘go to battle’ for the rights of the people,” gaining more support as governor from the citizens of Indiana. During a speech before the Indiana Republican Editorial Association, Branch asserted that “as long as he was Governor the Governor’s office and all other state departments would be found fighting for the interests of the people ‘against this monopoly.’” In 1925, this issue gained the majority of attention in discussing the high points of his term.

A fan of Abraham Lincoln and proud Republican, he often reminded people that the former president once contended “The Republican party is good enough for me” and that “What was good enough for Lincoln is good enough for me.” In an article published upon his death, Branch is described as “austere and dignified, with a Lincolnesque face,” a description he would have loved.

After leaving office, Branch retired with his wife, Katherine Bain Branch, to their home of more than twenty years at 510 E. Washington Street in Martinsville. He practiced law and continued to serve as president of the Branch Grain and Seed Company. Branch died unexpectedly on February 23, 1932 at the age of 57 in Martinsville.