Charles Gordone

Charles Gordone
Born Charles Edward Fleming
(1925-10-12)October 12, 1925
Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.
Died November 16, 1995(1995-11-16) (aged 70)
College Station, Texas, U.S.
Occupation Actor, director, playwright, producer, educator
Nationality American
Alma mater Los Angeles City College
UC Los Angeles
CSU, Los Angeles
Columbia University
New York University
Spouse Jeanne Warner-Gordone
Debut works A Little More Light Around the Place (1964)
Magnum opus No Place to be Somebody (1967)
Awards Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1970)

Charles Gordone (October 12, 1925 – November 16, 1995) was an American playwright, actor, director, and educator. He was the first African American to win the annual Pulitzer Prize for Drama and he devoted much of his professional life to the pursuit of multi-racial American theater and racial unity.[1][2][3]


Early years

Born Charles Edward Fleming in Cleveland, Ohio, to Charles and Camille (née Morgan) Fleming, of African-American, Native American, and European heritage. With his brothers Jack and Stanley and his sister Shirley, he grew up in Elkhart, Indiana, where he attended Elkhart High School.[4] Camille Fleming remarried William L. Gordon and later had Gordone's sister Leah Geraldine.

In his twenties, Gordone served in the U.S. Air Force and, afterwards, moved to California, where he soon married his first wife Juanita Barton in 1948. Together, they had two children: Stephen Gordone and Judy Ann Riser. Later, the couple parted ways and Barton ensconced himself in theater at Los Angeles City College and California State University, Los Angeles. He then moved to New York City, where he waited tables and pursued an acting career.

In the late 1950s, Charles met his second wife Jeanne Warner in Greenwich Village, New York City, where he settled. In the 1960s, they had one child together (Leah-Carla Gordone). During the '60s revolution, "open marriages" were common, and Charles met artist Nancy Meadows. Together they had a son David Brent Gordone, yet Charles Gordone remained with Jeanne Warner raising their daughter Leah-Carla in New York City over the years while Nancy Meadows left her position with the Washington Post and traveled around with her son David as a member of Wavy Gravy's Hog Farm (a famous '60s hippie communal/caravan group who coordinated light shows for major concerts around the nation, including the first Woodstock Concert).

Today Charles is also survived by David Brent Gordone, a retired Senior Chief Operations Specialist (E-8), of the United States Navy, who runs a metal arts fabrication business (Iron Star Vintage Transformations, LLC), with additional history as a champion competition pro bull rider, and a current passion for playing electric blues and Americana-country guitar.


Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Gordone continued acting and began directing. At one point, he sang and played guitar in a calypso band. He co-founded both the Committee for the Employment of Negro Performers and the Vantage Theater in Queens. His acting credits included Brother Jerro in The Trials of Brother Jerro Bohem, Hickey in Of Mice and Men, and The Valet in Jean Genet's The Blacks (1961–66) alongside James Earl Jones, Maya Angelou, Cicely Tyson, and many other Black actors who went on to change Hollywood. In 1987, Gordone appeared in the movie Angel Heart, starring Mickey Rourke, Lisa Bonet and Robert De Niro. He also assisted with the casting of the '60s feature film Nothing But a Man, starring Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln, and Julius Harris.

It was during his employment as a waiter in a Greenwich Village bar that Gordone found inspiration for his first major work as a playwright, No Place to be Somebody (Alexander Street Press),[5] for which he won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.[6] Written over the course of seven years, the play underwent one major change in the course of its production: the omitting (by Gordone himself) of an imaginary character named Machine Dog. This character can still be found in the actual play versions (i.e. the rare, out-of-print Bobbs-Merrill and Samuel French editions, as well as the currently available Alexander Street Press version). Not only was Charles the first playwright of African-American descent to receive the Pulitzer, but No Place to be Somebody was the first OFF-Broadway play (Joseph Papp's The Public Theater) to receive the award.

No Place is the story of Black bar owner (Johnny Romero) trying to carve out his piece of the American Dream in a New York City neighborhood where most venues are run by the Mafia. Johnny's best friend (Gabe Gabriel) is a light-skinned black actor/writer who is too white-looking to land black roles and too ethnic-looking to get any white roles, and this causes him great angst. Romero is brimming with arrogance, and a "get-over" mentality, while Gabriel appears intent on holding high morals, and the two of them are always at odds. It was often said that both Johnny and Gabe represent Gordone's alter egos.

Described as a "Black-black comedy", No Place To Be Somebody soon hit Broadway running, under the production of Gordone's wife Jeanne Warner-Gordone and partner Ashton Springer (Broadway producer of Bubbling Brown Sugar). Subsequently, with Gordone as director, No Place played to packed houses featuring audience members of many racial diversities. From 1970 to 1977, the play toured nationally, with Gordone as author/director for all three separate companies. Jeanne coordinated, booked, and managed the touring companies, as little Leah-Carla traveled with her often-on-the-road mother. A theatrical legacy was being forged.

Personal life

In 1981, Gordone moved back to California, where he met his last wife and leading lady Susan Kouyomjian in Berkeley. Gordone worked with Kouyomjian for three years at her theater, American Stage. There, he directed many classics such as August Strindberg's Miss Julie and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Together, Charles and Susan pioneered a new approach to casting in the American drama world, juxtaposing blacks with whites in traditional classic roles — an interracial "mash-up". It was a much needed wake-up call, and the results were refreshing and rippled down. Several years later, U.S. television viewers finally got The Cosby Show, and Denzel Washington hit the big screen.

In 1984, Gordone returned to New York City to resume work on his stage Western Roan Brown & Cherry. Soon after, Kouyomjian joined him in Harlem, where they resided together and remained inseparable up until his death, having found a working and romantic compatibility that seemed to play a big part in Gordone's achieving his "sobriety." Famous for his larger-than-life aura and personality, Chuck—as he was affectionately called by most who knew him well—had been prone to alcoholic drinking binges throughout the years. Finally, those days had come to an end. A saner, more tolerable man emerged, and, with that, a stabler lifestyle.

After relocating to Taos, New Mexico, in 1987 for a fellowship at the D.H. Lawrence Ranch, residing in the cabin once occupied by D. H. Lawrence, Gordone went on to teach Theater History and Theater at Texas A&M University. Over a period of eight years, through his teaching and directing many of the university's stage play productions, he advanced racial diversity in the arts at the College Station, Texas campus, which had been segregated for 100 years, up until 1963. During his residency as a Professor of Theater Arts, Charles Gordone joined the multi-racial Western Revival, involving poets, dancers, artists and singers, and invited them into A&M classrooms as part of his "American Voices" program.[7]

Gordone was awarded membership in the Actors Studio.[8]

On November 16, 1995, Gordone died of liver cancer. The cowboy poets and musicians of the Texas Panhandle honored him with a prairie funeral at sunset and scattered his ashes across the legendary XIT Ranch. In New York City, simultaneously, fellow actors, playwrights, and directors gathered to hold a vigil memorial for him where it had all begun: The Public Theater. Charles's daughter, critically acclaimed singer/songwriter/musician (Butterfly Child, Dancing on the Dragon, and Phoenix From The Ashes: Rise CDs) and author (The Motorgirl Memoirs on Leah-Carla Gordone,[9] spoke, sang, and played her guitar at the event, where Charles's wife, Jeanne, was present, along with many former cast members of No Place To Be Somebody.

In 1996, the National Endowment for the Arts profiled, at length, Gordone's work for integration at Texas A&M University, for "strengthening the diverse bonds of our cultural heritage." On March 2, 2009, Jeanne Warner-Gordone died at the age of 70, leaving in her wake a book entitled To and From the Pulitzer: Charles Gordone's Quest for an American Theater, which details her No Place days, primarily containing numerous in-depth recollections by Chuck's closest colleagues, friends and family members.


The Texas A&M Creative Writing Program has established The Charles Gordone Awards to commemorate Gordone by offering cash prizes each spring in poetry and in prose to an undergraduate and graduate student. Efforts continue to establish a permanent memorial on the Texas A&M University campus.[10] In 2011, "Legacy of a Seer," an exhibition of portraits of Gordone painted by Robert Schiffhauer was on display at the Wright Gallery at the Texas A&M College of Architecture.[7]




  1. Mel Gussow (December 31, 1969). "Theater: 'No Place to Be Somebody' Opens Run" (PDF). The New York Times. Retrieved January 24, 2012.
  2. "No Place to be Somebody". The Matrix Theatre Company. Retrieved January 24, 2012.
  3. Robin Pogrebin (November 19, 1995). "Charles Gordone Dead at 70; Won a Pulitzer for His First Play". The New York Times. Retrieved January 24, 2012.
  4. "Elkhart Grad Won Pulitzer Prize". Elkhart Community Schools. September 12, 2007. Retrieved December 19, 2008.
  5. J.C. Maçek III (August 2, 2012). "'American Pop' ... Matters: Ron Thompson, the Illustrated Man Unsung". PopMatters.
  6. "Drama". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved November 12, 2013.
  7. 1 2 Phillip Rollfing (April 28, 2011). "'Legacy of a Seer: A&M architecture professors' art honors playwright, professor, racial unity advocate'". Retrieved June 22, 2011.
  8. Garfield, David (1980). "Strasberg Takes Over: 1951–1955". A Player's Place: The Story of The Actors Studio. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. p. 93. ISBN 0-02-542650-8. Various directors and playwrights (Frank Corsaro, Martin Fried, Jack Garfein, Michal V. Gazzo, Israel Horovitz, Liska March, Arthur Penn, Eleanor Perry, Frank Perry, Sidney Pollack, Mark Rydell, Carl Schaeffer, Alan Schneider, and John Stix have also been granted membership on the basis of their contributions to the Drama World)
  9. Leah-Carla Gordone Music.
  10. Amanda Casanova (February 2, 2008). "'Just Call Me a North American mestizo'". Retrieved December 19, 2008.
  11. "Academy Awards". American Academy of Arts and Letters. 2008. Retrieved December 19, 2008.

External links

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