No Place To Be Somebody Theatre Review - Stella Adler Theatre Resurrects Pulitzer Prize Winner

(l to r) Imoh Essien, Stephen Ferguson & Tjader France in "No Place To Be Somebody"

Johnny Williams (Imoh Essien), bar owner and part time pimp, wants his piece of the pie. The organized crime pie, that is. He has two girls, Dee & Evie (Kelly Lind & Jennifer Sammons); and although Dee can’t do enough to profess her love for him, Johnny is only mildly interested. He has waited 10 years, kept his head down and his business going just long enough to stay a float until Sweets Crane (Vince J. Issac) gets out of the joint. Once they are reunited, Johnny knows they will be a formidable enough pair to take on the white mob who pretty much own the city.

Johnny has a handful of person who frequent his bar. Gabe Gabriel (Tjader France) is an aspiring actor and poet, Cora (Angela Heard), a LPN is looking for a husband and has her sights set on Shanty, the resident white boy of the establishment. Shanty (Stephen Ferguson) is Johnny’s bar-back whose dream is to become a jazz drummer and Johnny’s short-order cook Mel (Anthony B. Phillips) aspires to be a professional dancer.

Kelly Lind and Imoh Essien in "No Place To Be Somebody"

When Sweets does return, he is a shadow of the man he once was, no longer interested in the gangster. Enraged and betrayed, Johnny sets out to get exactly what he wants, alone, and by any means necessary. He begins with starting an affair with Mary Lou (Josefine Petersen), rights activist and daughter of a very useful judge (Larry Ludwig).

Pretty much right out of the gate, it is clear that the acting performances in this show are not the best to be found this weekend. The casting of this production was extremely lopsided, pairing novice performers with actors who were more focused and beginning to scratch the surface of some very interesting scene work. Half the cast worked really hard to connect with the subtext while the other half simply played “the action” each and every scene. The leads clearly connect with the material on an emotional level, but in this production, they seemed to lack the ability to also play the subtleties that would make these characters three-dimensional people. Playwright Charles Gordone imbued his characters with eccentricities, duplicities, vulnerabilities, and humor; most of which that were not properly mined or explored by this production. There was one exception where Mobster Mike (Edoardo Beghi) works a comic bit about soul food; the schtick lands fine but unfortunately still feels out of place given the tome of the rest of the play. 

(l to r) Imoh Essien, Kelly Lind, Jennifer Sammonds in "No Place To Be Somebody"

The presence of director Sam Nickens was painfully obtrusive in the staging, with actor moving from Point A to Point B on the performance space, apparently without any credible motivations. Similarly, the numerous instances of “stage combat” and physical altercations would have been far more believable if more time were spend fine tuning the dramatic tension in the performances; so when someone gets slapped, it is actually surprising or even frightening. The danger and humor of this production were so forcibly manufactured that there is no opportunity to get engaged in the fantasy of the piece.

Johnny and Gabe are literally the dark and light of this gritty urban crime drama. There is a bittersweet irony in the way Johnny continually drops cash on Gabe, essentially the poet's patron, while the Barkeeper is such a bastard to the rest of his circle. And while there are a few innocents sprinkled among the wolves, generally the characters are not likeable. The language of the piece is really ugly with eventually all women are reduced to "bitches" and racial slurs swarm through the like flies over a pile of dun. The verbal abuse is difficult to sit through and one might wonder the point of putting on a play where Black people are portrayed in such a bad, hateful light in the name of realism.

Having given it much reflection, I do now recognize why this play is the Pulitzer Prize Winner of 1970. “Black” is used reciprocally as both an outcry of pride and a racial insult in this play, by both whites and Blacks, which points to the persistent dilemma of fragmented heritage and identity facing most African-Americans. (Much like the “N” Word phenomenon where some sub-cultures within the African American community have "taken the power out the word" from its persecutors by adopting a new use exclusive to their culture. But even within the safety of racial exclusivity, the word can still be used for endearment or injury.) The central theme of the piece is self-loathing and the desperate individual need to redefine one's own identity.

(l to r) Imoh Essien & Larry Ludwig in "No Place To Be Somebody"

Perhaps the most obvious significance is that No Place To Be Somebody was written before the proliferation of Rap Music. The African American male had no real voice in the mainstream before rap music. No Place appeared on the scene at a time when art was the only respectable forum for “Black folks” to be that candid about their views of race, honestly portrayed through the eyes of a person of color. In fact, Gordone was ahead of his time with the interspersion of “spoken word” throughout the play. Resident poet Gabe (Tjader France) has several spotlight monologues of vibrant, passionate oratory. Gabe’s soliloquies predate rap music as we now know it, yet the form pays homage to countless African cultures whose heritage is rich in the art of rhetoric and storytelling as a means of intergenerational history and artistic expression.

No Place To Be Somebody is currently running October 3 through November 9 2008 at:

Stella Adler Theatre
(Gilbert Theatre)
6773 Hollywood Blvd, 2nd Floor
Hollywood, CA 90028

$20 General Admission
$15 Groups (12+), Seniors (55+), Students, and AEA/AFTRA/SAG Members with cards

(323) 960-4443

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