Charles Gordone, playwright, actor, director and educator, might not be commonly known but he’s a pioneer in the theater world nonetheless. On this day in 1970, Gordone became the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Gordone, born Charles Edward Fleming on October 12, 1925, was raised in Indiana with his family. After high school, Gordone traveled to California to attend UCLA but ended up serving two years in the U.S. Air Force. After his discharge, he entered school once more and eventually earned his degree in Drama from California State University.
Gordone changed his last name to Gordon after his mother’s second husband, but added the “e” to his name after seeing another actor also shared the same last name in New York. Gordone worked as a waiter until the ruggedly handsome actor started scoring acting jobs. In 1964, he won an Obie Award in for his role in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Gordone was passionate about diversity in theater and encouraged racial unity.
He organized Black theater workers in a bid to gain them more opportunities in a world that catered more to white faces. Gordone also believed that Black actors could share the stage with whites in the same production, which was sometimes met with resistance. His experiences working as a waiter in New York’s Greenwich Village shaped much of Gordone’s award-winning play, No Place To Be Somebody.
He released the play off Broadway in 1969, and it opened to rave reviews. Gordone became an instant darling of the theater world, and he would win the Pulitzer the following year. The play also won the New York Drama Critics Award and was the first off-Broadway play to win a Pulitzer. Gordone never replicated the success of No Place To Be Somebody but he continued to work in theater and lecture in community theater houses around the country.