|Sammie Wayne IV and Meghan Renee Lang - Photo: Niketa Caleme Harris|
By Joe Straw
“The theatre, he contended, served for railing at prejudices, and, beneath a mask of pleasure, taught virtue.” – Gustave Flaubert, – Madame Bovary
I’ve heard this from time to time. You are the company you keep. It’s cliché – and kind of true – well, something that makes sense. And it fits with the play No Place to Be Somebody. Because, if you wanted to be somebody then Johnny’s Bar is not the place you want to be. And, almost everybody wants to be somebody. Don’t they?
The Pulitzer Prize winning play, No Place to Be Somebody by Charles Gordone and directed by Ben Guillory, is presented by the Robey Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center through May 8th, 2016.
No Place to be Somebody is a thoroughly gratifying show. Finesse and dedicated actors work their craft to bring light to the Robey stage. This is a show about extremely unusual characters that have a found a niche. But they are itching for more out of life than hanging around a bar with endemic friends with less than stellar reputations.
The lights are lonely dimmed as Gabriel (Leith Burke) sits at a table in Johnny’s bar, front and center, pulls out a joint, and lights up. He taps away at the Royal typewriter, like he’s a writer or something, which he ain’t, cause if he was he wouldn’t be there. It’s 1969, late at night, and you can’t hear the turmoil of the war demonstrations or the Civil Rights marches in the bar, down the street, or across the Brooklyn Bridge. He is just a man getting his thoughts together.
Gabriel’s now got to introduce himself and say why he is here.
“Don’t want you goin’ out’a here with the idea what you see happenin’ is all a figment of my grassy imagination. ‘Cause it ain’t!” - Gabriel
Shanty (Ben Landmesser), laboring, an employee of Johnny’s bar, carries the drumsticks in his back pocket pulling them out to practice on everything that’s drumable, the jukebox, the chairs, and the bar. Things along the bar have little “beat marks” on them something Johnny (Sammie Wayne IV) doesn’t like too much and Johnny would rather have him cleaning up than pounding on things in his bar.
Yes, Shanty said he done it. Played with some of the biggest jazz names. Those names are figments of that dream-making machine inside Shanty’s head.
“One if these days I’m gonna have me a boss set’a drums. - Shanty
(Why anyone would call his kid, Shanty, is beyond me. His parents might as well call him poor white trash from the get-go just to cement a life that moves in that direction.)
Evie (Saadiqa Kamille) and Dee (Allison Blaize) enter the bar with stories to tell about a night gone wrong, specially with some Texas john using the “N” word ‘til he lost breath. Well, actually it was Evie who got tired of it all. It was she who bashed his head open with that lamp – the lamp that a happy customer, a Senator, gave them. And he brought it all the way from Russia, just for these two darlings.
“Sure hated to lose that lamp.” – Evie
Johnny don’t like the girls scaring away the customers. And he’s always into their stuff rummaging through their purse for money, until he finds the baby shoes in Dee’s mess, paraphernalia that he immediately dumps into the trash: that just about pushed Dee’s last button.
Breaking up matters, Cora (Kacie Rogers) runs in to get out of the rain and to see her boyfriend, Shanty. And right away, Cora and Evie get into it with Evie pulling a razor. Johnny, emotionally elevated, wants no blood in his bar and positions himself betwixt the two.
Martini poured, Cora sits at the bar, tells Johnny that she was willing to help him after he got out of reform school but Sweets (Hawthorne James) got to him first and ruined him.
Melvin (Matt Jennings), fresh out of dance class, hurries in but is late for work – couldn’t get a cab – white folks couldn’t get one neither in this weather. Johnny says he outta get paid for throwing around his tukus for free.
And happy as a clam, Gabe steps in and has them pour him a drink. He’s all exultant because of his audition with hundreds of his closest friends - for a musical about slavery.
Johnny just shakes his head, pulls out some money, and throws it on the table, trying to get him to join his team.
Gabe’s not havin’ any of it.
“Okay, Hollywood! Keep knockin’ on doors with yo’ jeans at half-mast! Sellin’ yo’-self like some cheap-ass whore! If I know one thing about you, you ain’t that good’a actor! Whitey knows right away you can’t even stan’ to look at him!” – Johnny
Time passes, days and nights, weeks like yesterdays.
Shanty and Cora are two different sides of the coin, they can hardly communicate - each off in their own world, being nobodies and having no one, having a discussion, smokin’ weed, talkin’ about their previous mates. She’s thinking this white man in Johnny’s bar would be good for her. He’s thinkin’ that a white woman is someone he should take a broomstick to. Neither one can see that the other’s not someone to establish a long-term relation with.
“I’d like a daiquiri, please – “ – Mary Lou Bolton
Mary Lou (Meghan Lang), straight off the streets demanding Civil Rights for union workers, walks in with her high fallutin’ self, wanting to make something out of this nothing bar, Johnny’s Bar. Her friend, Ellen (also Allison Blaize), wants her to get out of there and wonders why she’s always doing what she does.
Johnny has taken a liking to Mary Lou, straight out of Elmira College, and he gives her a quick lesson, something to study while he’s at it and this scares her off for the time being.
|L - R Gianluca Malacrino, Hawthorne James, Sammie Wayne IV - Photo: Niketa Caleme HarrisL|
But, you know, Johnny is waiting on Sweets, waiting for Sweets to get out of prison so they can claim what’s rightfully theirs, the streets, but when Sweets arrive it’s one more story in this place to be somebody, or not.
This is another strong Robey outing and Ben Guillory, the director, is responsible for the fine details on stage, the intangibles that give the characters added dimensions that is projected out beyond the fourth wall. The characters lives stay with you long after the lights have dimmed.
There are a few things that need addressing, a moment, and objective but for the most part, No Place to Be Somebody is as smooth as the best drink you every put into our mouth and tasty too. And, it will only get better with age and more performances under their belt.
Allison Blaize does a fine job as Dee, a hustler, who works for and is in love in the Johnny. Dee, try as she might to have solid relationship, knows she is in a bad situation. Interesting thing about the baby shoes is that she probably wants one and I think she is moving in this direction. But she seems to lose sight of the objective that could carry her through to the end. Still, some wonderful work.
Leith Burke is Gabe Gabriel, the poet, writer, actor, a man of mixed race, is on a mission with no place to go. The writing’s not working, the acting work is dismal, and hanging around the bar is just too much for his sensibilities. Near the end he is certainly way over his head and probably wishes he had never met Johnny. Burke rises to the occasion in this play. But, is the character’s objective to absorb the inner workings of life at the bar? If so, why isn’t he taking notes?
Ray Dennis plays Machine Dog, a figment of Gabe’s imagination. I didn’t get the wrench and one day I will get this role, the objective, and his reason for being.
Hawthorn James is delightful as Sweets Crane, a huge man, sickly, and a man who loves macaroni salad. In all seriousness, there is a lot of good work going on here. And the humorous moments in his portrayal along with his dangerous side adds up to a complete character. James’ craft is his road traveled, mysterious, seethingly treacherous and at times provocative. All that makes for a wonderful performance.
Matt Jennings plays Melvin Smeltz, a dancer with a nice body but little dancing skills. He is lost in the studio and lost as a short order cook that can barely peel a potato. (Jennings has to work on peeling a potato.) Also, it is not clear if the character knows the difference between a sautés, jeté, cabrioles, or assembles, as the dance moves seem less than exquisite. Why is he there in the bar? It’s hard to tell. Jennings has to find a reason to be there. It’s not the pay, nor the girls, so what else could it be? There has to be more in his relationship with Johnny.
Saadiqa Kamille is quite ideal in the role of Evie Ames a strong woman who wants more than what Johnny has to offer. She’s fed up with the life and wants to move on. Kamille’s performance is fantastic, oh yes it is!
Ben Landmesser has some really good moments as Shanty Mulligan, an Irish mutt of a man with not much talent as a drummer; it’s just a dream, because people have got to have dreams. Still, that doesn’t stop him from carrying around the sticks to practice every waking moment. He cuts himself peeling a lemon, ruining his drumming fingers, but oddly that didn’t play into that particular scene. Still, there were a lot of nice moments coming from this actor. Landmesser has a very strong stage presence, a very strong craft, and does well in the role.
Meghan Lang does enormously well as Mary Lou Boulton, a college woman, who wants to taste the racier side of life. Born to trouble, Mary Lou wants to get more out of her existence and will do anything to get what she wants. Lang gives a tantalizing performance that, once in costume, fits with the time and the place. Lang is bold and baiting in one swell swoop.
Gianluca Malacrino is also impressive as Mike Maffucci a small time hood who wants to take over, no matter what it takes. The moment with the macaroni salad is filled with so much life, a lot of fun, and hits with a very strong truth that one thoroughly enjoys in theatre.
Monty Montgomery plays Sergeant Cappaletti and has a face that you think you’ve seen on TV thousands of times. In other words, it is a good face for TV. Cappaletti is a muscle man and uses his girth, badge, and gun to suppress dissention.
Suave, sophisticated, and sleazy is what you would describe as Judge Bolton played by Darrell Philip a man who gets what he wants when he wants it. A man whose voice projects barely above a whisper, and with slightest manipulation of his finger he moves man and machine to his desired effect. He is dastardly, in a very nice job.
Kacie Rogers plays Cora Beasley as a woman who would like to have things her way but misses the signals that would suggest that she should stay away from bar she frequents right down to the man she has chosen. But maybe there’s more to be had here in the character and in the way she’s not picking up the signals. What kind of person would let herself be completely abused without something not clicking? Does compassionate love override those signals?
Seeing Sammie Wayne IV in various roles at the Robey Theatre this is probably his best performance to date as Johnny Williams. Johnny has a need for people men and women coming around the bar. There is a hint that Johnny is bisexual because of his interactions with people who frequent the bar. Handing out money to men, and molesting women. It is a very interesting performance, one that again has Wayne searching for the words (maybe that is an affectation) and losing sight of the objective from time to time. Still, it is a very good performance.
Charles Gordone’s play is significant in the way it opened a visionary door. It is the verbal interaction of whites and African Americans, in rustic volubility. The language is harsh, the physical interaction intense, and the crimes committed are not from one segment of the population. In the overall play, the beauty is not only found in the words from the sententious poet, but it is found in the body of the work, and that is what carries the night.
Tom Meleck, Scenic Design, has created an impressive set for which the actors can create their magic. It is magical, fully functional, and a place one would find in 1969 New York.
Michael D. Ricks’ wonderful Lighting Design highlights the beautiful set.
Naila Aladdin Sanders is responsible for the glorious Costume Design of the characters. Each provided another element of character, a visual accouterment to an actor wanting to perfectly define the character. Marvelous work!
Other members of the crew are as follows:
Tamir Elbassir – Production Stage Manager
Melvin Ishmael Johnson – Assistant Stage Manager/Veteran Intern/Prop Master
Julio Hanson – Music/Sound Design
Kiana Lyons – Assistant Stage Manager/Prop Master
Jason Mimms – Graphic Design
Niketa Calame-Harris – Production Photographer
Philip Sokoloff – Publicist
Judith Bowman – Development Director
Chris Carneli – Webmaster
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