No Place to be Somebody Review - Survival in a Dark Time

Playwright Charles Gordone won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for NO PLACE TO BE SOMEBODY - and the Robey Theatre Company’s current production of the piece makes it obvious why. It’s 1969, and Johnny’s Greenwich Village bar is a magnet attracting the disenfranchised, the unhappy, and the hopeless. Johnny (Sammie Wayne IV) is an angry black man who sees mainstream opportunities closed to him; in response, he has become frustrated, manipulative, and brutal.

 

Sammie Wayne IV and Meghan Renee Lang - Photo by Nikita Caleme Harris

Besides operating his bar, Johnny runs a small stable of prostitutes. Dee (Allison Blaze), one of his hookers, is a young white woman who is hopelessly in love with Johnny. But the psychopathic Johnny has relinquished any thoughts of love in favor of gaining power any way that he can. And he is not above using women for his own ends - including white Mary Lou Bolton (Meghan Renee Lang), a judge’s bored daughter who wants to walk on the wild side. Enter Sweets Crane (Ben Guillory), just released from prison and the closest to a father figure Johnny has ever known.  

NO PLACE TO BE SOMEBODY is a powerful tale populated by well-rounded, fascinating characters who do the perpetual two-step around each other in their quest to survive and somehow not to lose touch with their dreams. An actor and writer, Gabe (Leith Burke) can’t find work because he’s “too white;” he has become the bar’s poet and weaves beautiful words into the stale and sad world of the bar noir. Black Cora Beasley (Kacie Rogers) longs for a loving and committed relationship with a guy, preferably white. Short-order cook Melvin Smeltz (Matt Jennings) wants to dance his life away. Janitor and bar tender Shanty Mulligan (Ben Landmesser) dreams of rat-a-tatting through life on his drums.

 

Leith Burke and Sammie Wayne IV - Photo by Nikita Caleme Harris

While author Gordone’s characters are his strength, there is no shortage of plot. Johnny has opened his bar on the turf of the White Mafia. He has run afoul of the law, both legitimate and otherwise. And let’s not forget that the burgeoning Black Power movement of the Civil Rights era is fundamental to the play. This is the time period where lines between right and wrong blurred, and Gordone’s play has brilliantly translated the era’s uncertainty and lack of clarity into powerful theater. The entire cast masterfully portray each character with sensitivity and understanding. Multi-talented Ben Guillory deserves special kudos as the play’s director, the producing artistic director of the Robey Theatre Company, and the actor playing Sweets Crane in the evening’s production.

 

Sammie Wayne IV and Ray Dennis - Photo by Nikita Caleme Harris

Thomas Meleck’s set design reflects the period perfectly, as do costumes by Naila Aladdin Sanders. The entire production crew does a great job of bringing 1970 back to life. The audience even gets to enjoy some jukebox music of the 70's. This is a terrific production, and it is well worth the price of the ticket to experience the dynamics and nuances of a revolutionary time seen through the eyes of a contemporary. Besides, some of the issues are frighteningly current. Don’t miss this opportunity. 

NO PLACE TO BE SOMEBODY, a Robey Theatre Company production in association with the Los Angeles Theatre Center, runs through May 8, 2016. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays. The Los Angeles Theatre Center is located at 514 S. Spring Street, Los Angeles, CA 90013. Tickets are $30 ($20 students, seniors, veterans, LAUSD teachers). For reservations, call 866-811-4111 or go online at www.thelatc.org.

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