Dark comedy questions American Dream

UNIVERSITY PARK – Although its title is “No Place to be Somebody,” after seeing Penn State Centre Stage’s current production, it’s apparent why this play bears a subtitle of “A Black Black Comedy in Three Acts.”

Charles Gordone’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play has 7:30 p.m. performances tonight through Oct. 10 in Penn State’s on-campus Pavilion Theatre.

The award of the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for Drama was doubly significant in that Gordone was the first African-American playwright to be so honored, and “No Place To Be Somebody” was the first off-Broadway play ever to win the Pulitzer Prize.

In the midst of the Civil Rights era, a black bartender tries to match wits with a white mobster who controls everything in the downtrodden New York City neighborhood. With a maze of subplots, it is also the tale of the denizens of the bar, who are waiting for their dreams to come true. Trouble is that for many, their dreams are really illusions and, in some cases, delusions.

The driving force in the Centre Stage production is Charles Dumas, the renowned visionary and longtime member of Penn State’s faculty. Dumas, who is both director and cast member, is retiring from directing Mainstage shows following this production.

“Something that we all share is the American Dream. But the play explores what really is the American Dream since Gordone’s vision is so varied,” Dumas said.

“Today the play can only be done in an university setting, pointing to the 17 idiosyncratic characters who appear in the play.”

The solid cast of School of Theatre students bring their characters’ dreams to life with the play’s vivid, biting and often comedic dialogue. Black tavern owner and pimp Johnny Williams wants to outsmart the white mob syndicate and be top dog. He’s counting on the return of his mentor and father figure Sweets Crane to provide the support he needs. But when Sweets gets out of prison, he is exhausted, detached and not interested in Johnny’s power play. So when Johnny has to go it alone, there are unexpected and violent consequences.

Gordone describes his play as being “about country folk who had migrated to the big city seeking the urban myth of success, only to find disappointment, despair, and death.”

This production effectively explores the racial tensions simmering between the black and white communities. All the characters want something that has become their personal American dream. “That message has not changed in the 50 years since the play first appeared”, Dumas claims. “My job is to cut through all that and make it relevant”.

And relevant it is, with the subplots skillfully interwoven, by rich and, other times, by rip-roaring, rowdy speeches and dialogue.

The strengths of this production are Dumas’ powerful, brisk direction, and the main characters’ acting with undiminished gusto and alacrity.

The dreamers include Big Mel, the busboy and would-be dancer; Shanty, a talentless helper who wants to be a drummer; Cora, a bar regular who simply wants to finally find a good man; a depressed white hooker, and a white judge’s liberal daughter.

The play’s pivotal character is Gabe, an itinerant actor and writer who serves as the alter ego of Gordone, the peripheral observer hoping but not really expecting that life will eventually work out for everyone.

Some of the characters’ rants are scorching and sound a bit insensitive, even for today’s audiences. And lthough not necessarily a flaw, the action in Act II turns blatantly melodramatic.

There are excellent technical values from the well-designed barroom set to the bar patrons’ early ’70s attire.

Playwright Gordone points that there are no easy answers why dreams don’t come true. It matters not whether the dreamers be black or white, or whether they lived 50 years ago, or are struggling to keep their dreams alive today.

“No Place To Be Somebody” delivers this timely message with verve and abundant humor. Penn State Centre Stage’s production is top-notch, compelling entertainment.

For tickets and information, call 814-863-0255; 1-800- ARTS-TIX; or visit www.theatre.psu.edu.