‘No Place To Be Somebody’: Richard Lawson On Why The Civil Rights-Era Play Still Matters

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April 11th 2019

It’s closing night of the No Place to Be Somebody run at the WACO Theater. Legendary actor, Richard Lawson, who both acted in and directed this WACO production, takes a bow alongside fellow cast members. There is an excitement in the air bouncing back and forth between the multiracial cast and the audience--who knows the future of this promising revival? For Lawson, who has a long history with the play (he starred in the original 1970 national production), Broadway would be ideal. 

As Mr. Lawson sits in his office the following Monday, for an in-depth interview with Shadow And Act at the WACO Theater Center (which he founded with his wife, Tina Knowles-Lawson), he doesn’t shy away from his Broadway ambitions: “That play has lived in me for the last 50 years. And so now that it's the 50th anniversary of No Place [to Be Somebody] winning the Pulitzer Prize, it reactivated the desire for me to be the one to direct it on Broadway.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 03: Richard Lawson and Tina Knowles Lawson attend the Launch at the WACO Theater Grand Opening at WACO Theater Center on November 3, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images) LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 03: Richard Lawson and Tina Knowles Lawson attend the Launch at the WACO Theater Grand Opening at WACO Theater Center on November 3, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images)

No Place To Be Somebody is a landmark play. It was the first play written by a Black playwright to win a Pulitzer Prize. With its 1969 debut, it brought audiences to the theater, both Black and white, who had never been. “There was a[n] unsophisticated audience, a very raw and organic audience that would come and understand what was being talked about,” Lawson reflects on the original production. “People would literally stand up and talk back to the characters, they would, you know, shout back and forth.”

The playwright, late Charles Gordone, by Lawson’s accounts, was a deeply complex man--he struggled both with alcoholism and his identity as a very fair-skinned Black man. Well, Gordone managed to write an equally complex and controversial play that explores race relations during the civil rights era and the process of creating a space for oneself in an unfair socio-political world.

In the 50 years that have passed, No Place to Be Somebody has solidified itself as a play that stands the test of time. However, the prophetic way it mirrors our world of 2019 is quite unnerving. “The play is a microcosm of what happens in this country,” Lawson says. “We don't have to name people. But the situation, you know, the corruption, you know, all of those things are microcosms of what's happening in the country. Yeah, and it's still happening in the country.”

One of Lawson’s aims with his production was to highlight that relevancy further: he weaves projected images in and out of the play; vintage and modern photos further highlight the state of race relations in our world. When it comes to staging the racial violence both emotional and physical, Lawson goes for it: “I hate to see something where actors are pulling back and trying not to hurt other actors.” Lawson who brought in a stuntman to help the actors choreograph the physical violence in the play, says “The fight scenes in this play are very realistic.”

Lawson also understood the importance of humor in the play; well-placed humor was a big reason such a controversial play could be successful in the divided 1960s. Lawson explains, “As controversial as some of the, some of the themes in the play, in terms of racism, in terms of, of corruption, of violence, of attitudes towards women, of Black and white division, of all of those issues, which were sort of like hot topics, at the time, the thing that made it palatable for people was the fact that it was funny. It had a humor to it-- had a dangerous humor to it.”

The danger is in the air at every moment in No Place to Be Somebody as we follow a very flawed, yet pitiful central character, Johnny, a Black man trying to make something of himself in the only way that he knows how. “He had to hustle because that's what his daddy and his daddy before him did. In order to feel like men, they had a gun, and they carried a gun. And they took shifts, in order to be able to drive those cars and fancy clothes and have 300 suits and shoes and kicks and stuff like that,” Lawson says.

Johnny’s relationship with the women around him is problematic: he forces them to prostitute themselves to support his business--including his girlfriend who throughout the play seeks his acceptance. That suppression of women, Lawson believes is unfortunately still present in 2019, especially in the institution of marriage: “[women] come here with a dream, sometimes the dream is not so clear, but you have a dream, you want to be a star, you want to be an actress, you want to work, and you start going down that road, and things happen. And then you meet the guy," Lawson says. “And then [before] you know it [he] wants to get married. And then his mother wants kids, and your mother probably wants kids. And then you got the in-laws and relatives, and they want kids and then you're dealing with whatever this collective image of expectation for women, and what they should be doing.”

Lawson, who heads the acting studio, Richard Lawson Studios, stresses the importance of not only staying focused on your dreams but also the importance of  creating your own space to be somebody: “this is what I teach, create your own, create the party and have people come to your party.” Shadow and Act observed one of Lawson’s classes during which he got extremely personal with his students, recounting memories as a Vietnam soldier and his earlier days as an actor. “I've been challenged. Yes. I didn't have a place to stay. Yes, I slept in my car. Yes. I didn't know where my next paycheck was going to come from. Yes, all of that. But I knew that was part of the territory. I knew that was part of the journey.”

Lawson stresses to actors “You got to know who you are. Okay, you got to know what you're about.” Lawson says, “I've been in the business for 50 years, [one thing] I learned very early on is that I better be in control. I better be originating my own thing. Otherwise, I'm waiting.”

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