'No Place to Be Somebody' Captures Essence of a Turbulent Time
For director Charles Dumas, his production of Charles Gordone’s “No Place to Be Somebody,” is the perfect ending to an illustrious and visionary career in the Penn State School of Theatre.
The play opens on Oct. 1 and runs through Oct. 10 at the Pavilion Theatre on campus.
“This play was the first piece of New York theatre in my (acting) career,” said Dumas. “I worked with Joe Papp’s Public Theatre and I knew Charles Gordone.”
The play, which made Gordone the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for dramatic writing, explores the very elusive meaning of “the American Dream.” It also captures the turbulent era of the early 1970’s in Greenwich Village, a major center of New York City’s Bohemian culture. As the nation comes to terms with the Civil Rights Act, signed into law in 1964, a black bartender matches wits with a white mobster.
“The play caused a great sensation,” recalled Dumas. “I’ve been wanting to do it since I got here.” Dumas has been a member of the School of Theatre faculty since 1995.
“Today, this play can only be done in a university setting he said,” pointing to the 17 idiosyncratic characters that appear in the show.
Dumas noted that the play’s setting follows one of the most violent periods in American history. “If the students can get through the language this will be a great success.
“This is a play about the American Dream,” Dumas continued. “A view from the underclass. All the characters want something and think they can achieve it in America. That message has not changed in the 50 years since this play first appeared. My job is to cut through all that and make it relevant.”
To explain the plot and power of the play, Dumas wrote “all the characters are thrown together into the cesspool barrel of a 1970’s bar. They are tearing, crawling, ripping anything and anyone to get out. They are both totally different and disturbingly the same as we are.”
Dumas is pleased that his young cast has embraced the world and people of “No Place to Be Somebody.”
“The actors are bringing a humanity to the characters. If we can see the humanity of Hamlet and the characters in “Iceman Cometh,” we can see the humanity in these characters. I was one of these characters in my personal life. I was hanging out at a bar trying to be an artist.”
As a teacher and actor, Dumas finds it rewarding to watch as his young cast embraces the project. “They bring truth to what is truly a historical piece for them. Only two members of the cast were even born in 1970.”
As he completes his final production as a member of the Penn State faculty, Dumas reflects on the wonderful journey he has taken in the past 18 years at the University.
“Working with the faculty and Dan Carter (Head of the Penn State School of Theatre) has been wonderful. He was always amenable to my work in other places, including a Fulbright year.” For the last three years he has been a visiting professor at the University of the Free State in South Africa. Dan has been very supportive. When professors participate, they bring those skills back to their students.”
What’s next for the actor, director, and writer? Plenty of projects are already on his list.
“I am working on a project for middle school kids here and in South Africa,” Dumas said. “It will teach them how to tell stories.”
Dumas is also working with the State Department to create a program for Iraq. He is also putting together a musical tribute to blues great Willie Dixon, who happens to be a relative of Dumas.
Dumas related the philosophy that underpins his artistic journey. It is all told in one African word: Ubunto.
“It means ‘I am, because we are,’” Dumas said. Seems like a perfect worldview for a retiring Penn State professor.