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Capturing a legacy

Pulitzer-prize-winning former professor memorialized today

Published: Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 19:07

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Charles Gordone overlooks the Rio Grande Gorge in Taos, N.M. during his fellowship at the D.H. Lawrence Ranch in July 1987.(Photo by Susan Gordone)

Down a country road and around a dusty bend, John Walker spends his days in a shed behind his house, where he shapes scrap metal into works of art. Walker, a 60-something former Texas A&M architecture professor, doesn't get many visitors these days, but lately, he's connected with an old friend who left a lasting impression on him more than nine years ago.

To Walker, his friend, Charles Gordone, was the kind of man that you meet once in a lifetime. Gordone, who taught theater at A&M from 1987 to 1994 and won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for his first play, "No Place to Be Somebody," was the first playwright to integrate blacks and whites on the same stage. The friendship between Walker, a white man, and Gordone, a man of three races - black, white and Native American - happened almost instantaneously.

A companionship between two men who grew up in such different cultures was an unlikely one. Walker grew up in the segregated south on a cotton farm in Georgia and was raised almost entirely by two black women (whom he calls his "surrogate mothers") who worked on his parents' farm. Charles spent his childhood in Elkart, Ind., where his mother fed him a steady diet of culture and poetry. But, the two men were inextricably bound by one thing: their belief in an American culture that couldn't be divided by race or ethnicity.

"Charles did not believe in black power," Walker said. "He believed in people power."

Tonight, Gordone's vision for a unified America will be brought to A&M by local artists and his widow, Susan, through readings, music and art. The campus, Susan said, has come a long way since her husband began his struggle toward an inclusive America in the 1960s.

Just four decades ago, A&M was only beginning to open its doors to women and minorities. The racial tensions of the 60s were something Charles, who was living in New York, sought to end on the stage, Susan said. His play, "No Place to Be Somebody," described his struggle of living in a white vs. black America.

"Charles said throughout his life that there was one culture: the American culture, to which many ethnic groups contribute," Susan said. "His play was born out of necessity and urgency for a play that gave substantial roles to actors of all races. He brought blacks and whites into the theater, and they were all laughing at the same human truths."

But the play, which was the first off-Broadway drama to win the Pulitzer Prize, was a bittersweet victory.

"When Charles won the Pulitzer, he said he was the right messenger at the wrong time," Susan said. "It was a time when black nationalists were coming up, but racism in America still existed. Charles - at the height of his effort - literally had no place to be."

That position was a familiar one for her husband.

"For his whole life, he had known that racial quandary had caused him to have no place to be. Every time he won an award, he would come up against the same thing - accolades, but no privileges," Susan said. "He was always labeled 'the first African American to win a Pulitzer,' which was patronizing to him because he felt that being a man of color was equally as important as the award itself."

Walker agrees.

"I always said Charles Gordone did more for the Pulitzer than the Pulitzer ever did for Charles Gordone," he said. "Putting that 'first African American' label on his prize only reflected how limited the American theater had been up until that point, not how limited African Americans had been."

More than 10 years after winning the Pulitzer, Gordone headed west to Los Angeles, Calif., where he met Susan. There, across the street from UCLA, they began collaborating on a multicultural theater. For three years, they turned the community stage into a melting pot of talent and brought John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams to the inner city. In 1985, the theater's lease ended and Charles returned to New York City to work on his latest play - a Western that followed the life of a man who was tired of city life and moved to the country to find himself. By the end of the next year, he missed the woman who had shared his passion for a multicultural theater, and he asked Susan to marry him. But Susan, who accepted his proposal, had different plans for her husband's work.

"I told Charles that if he wanted to write a play about living in the country, he needed to go there," she said. "Throughout his life, he was living city, but singing and writing country."

Susan began mailing fellowship applications for her husband, and soon Charles was offered a fellowship at the D.H. Lawrence Ranch, where he stayed in a cabin outside Taos, N.M. for the summer of 1987. The following fall, he headed to Texas A&M - which, during that time, was struggling to establish an arts program, Susan said.

"Little did Charles expect that his Texas experience would have such a profound effect and awaken in him the optimism of his rural heritage," Susan said. "His life was a legacy of hard-won truths."

For most of Charles' life, Susan said, he felt that there was some force inexplicably pulling him to the West. In 1990, he decided to verify whether this intuition was valid and headed to Elko, Nev., for a meeting of cowboy poets. There, he heard legendary cowboy Buck Ramsey recite "Anthem," a poem that changed Charles' life forever.

"As soon as he heard that poem, he felt that he had come home," Susan said. "'Anthem' united us all in our common humanity, and Charles had always said that once this happened, America would have a spiritual awakening."

Learning the "cowboy code" also played a large role in Charles' connection with the West, Susan said.

"The cowboy code pays no attention to color or creed, only to ability. He was five nationalities and three races, and he told the Indians (in Elko), 'Just call me a North American mestizo.' When they heard that, they said, 'He is a breed just like the rest of us."

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