September 12, 2007

Elkhart Grad Won Pulitzer Prize

A little known fact among alumni of Elkhart High School is that one of their own was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize.

Charles E. Gordon, class of 1944, won the coveted prize in 1970 for his drama "No Place to be Somebody." He was acclaimed as the first African American playwright to receive the honor.

Charles Gordon graduated
from Elkhart High School
in 1944.

Many Elkhart residents were unaware of the award; however, because it was presented to Charles Gordone, the name Gordon took after moving to New York City. He changed names because there was already a Charles Gordon in the equity union when he arrived on Broadway in 1952 after graduating from Los Angeles State College.

Gordone is better remembered locally for his exploits while attending Elkhart High School, where he was president of the A Capella Choir, captain of the track team, and a member of Hi-Y, Drama Club, Yell Club, Student Council, Superintendent's Council, Boys' Glee Club, Tumbling Team, and Blue Jackets.

He was one of only a few students of color attending Elkhart at that time, and while he was a good student and accepted by most of his classmates at Elkhart High School, off campus he felt like a loner, said his sister, Shirley Gordon Jackson, who is writing a book about her brother's life.

During a recent visit to Elkhart for her 60th class reunion, Jackson recalled the time her brother traveled with his teammates to an out-of-town track event. On the way home, the team stopped at a restaurant to eat dinner. The owner refused to let Gordon inside. Yet Gordon saw a restaurant patron put a plate of food on the floor for a dog.

"You mean a dog can eat in there but a human being cannot?" Gordon asked his sister later that evening.

Gordone would later use these types of childhood incidents in the plays he wrote as a way to display the ignorance of bigotry and promote the "human race." 

"No Place to be Somebody," produced by the legendary Joseph Papp at an off-Broadway theater in 1969, was hailed by the critics. New York Times theater critic Walter Kerr called Gordone "the most astonishing American playwright to come along since Edward Albee."

After winning the Pulitzer, Gordone said in the New York Times he had turned to writing out of expediency. "At the time I moved into acting seriously, here in New York, there were damned few jobs in the profession for anybody, black or white. I love the theater and I had to do something to stay in it."

He did have some success as an actor, performing in "Climate of Eden" on Broadway and winning an Obie Award for his performance in an all-black cast of Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." During his 30-year stint in New York, Gordone shared the stage with such notable actors as Eartha Kitt, Cecily Tyson, Maya Angelou, and James Earl Jones.

In 1970, Gordone presented "Gordone Is a Muthah," a collection of his poems, at the Carnegie Recital Hall. The collection was published in "The Best Short Plays 1973." He also founded his own theatre, Vantage, and began directing.

Gordon,captain of the track
team, participated in a number
of academic and extra-curricular activities.

Gordone moved west in the 80s after accepting a teaching position in the theater department at Texas A&M, which at that time was making a push to attract more Hispanic and African American students into the arts.

Gordone died in Texas in 1995 at the age of 70.

His widow, Susan Kouyomjian Gordone, described her husband as a visionary. "Charles used to say he was the right messenger for the wrong time," she told the Dallas Morning News, explaining he believed words like diversity and multi-culturalism tore people apart rather than bringing them together.

"He believed America is not a collection of separate ethnic and religious and racial cultures," she said. "He believed that there is only one American culture to which many ethnic groups contribute. All of us are part of one culture."

While in Elkhart for her high school reunion last week, Jackson met with officials from the Elkhart County Historical Museum, providing them with photos, documents, and other mementos of Gordone's achievements to be exhibited there. The effort is being spearheaded locally by Lauraine Holycross, a friend and schoolmate of Charles and Shirley. Jackson and Holycross are also working with the Elkhart County Historical Society to have a state historical marker erected in Elkhart to honor Gordone.

Jackson also hopes to honor her brother with her book, "A Place to Be Some One," which will be published a year from now. The book describes Gordone's childhood and how growing up in Elkhart influenced his future writing.

Jackson said she wrote the book to dispel all the misinformation printed about her brother. "Biographers don't always check their facts," she stated. "I wanted to leave an accurate record of his life."

A promotional poster for Gordone's
Pulitizer Prize winning play

She said her brother would likely be "tickled out of his skull" to know she was writing about him. "He always liked to be the center of attention," she noted. "He would probably say, 'You go girl.'"

She said her brother viewed winning the Pulitzer as a mixed blessing. "He said there isn't any ego that wouldn't be salved by this kind of recognition," Jackson reported. "But he also said it's a curse. You're only as good as your last play."

He was also bothered throughout his life at being described as the first black playwright to receive the Pulitzer, Jackson continued, explaining he never wanted the color of his skin to define him. Gordone described himself as being a combination of three races--white, black, and native American--and five nationalities. "He said, 'Just call me a North American mistizo.'"

Shirley Gordon Jackson,
Elkhart class of 1947

The cover of Shirley
Gordon Jackson's book about her brother's life

Jackson said it was in his final years in the west that her brother finally felt he'd found his home, as a leader of the multi-racial western revival. "He had always been looking for a place to be somebody," she said. "He had that in the west, among the cowboys and Indians and his students at A&M. They loved him and accepted him with open arms.

"They didnít care about his winning the Pulitzer," she continued. "They just saw him as a kindred spirit."

Jackson said her brother's legacy is not the award-winning play he authored, but instead the kind of life he lived. "He overcame so many obstacles," she said. "He showed people, especially young children, that what happens today doesn't have to be forever. You can change. And through your life you can help change others."

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