Charles Gordon

  • Category: Theater
  • Words: 1448
  • Grade: 100
Charles Gordon was born to Earnest Gordon, a steel worker, and Bennie Gordon, a housewife, in Elyria, Ohio in a household of six siblings. Gordon immediately moved to Lorraine, Ohio to a predominately white school system, which challenged the students to excel. Received encouragement from his sixth grade, his teacher Mrs. Crump particularly after writing and receiving and "A" on a paper concerning "your morning activities." In high school wrote for the school paper and also wrote letters to the editor of the local newspaper arguing with different adults about different topics. Gordon also wrote stories and poems during that period. In1962, Gordon graduated from Admiral King High School in Lorraine, Ohio. After graduation from high school worked various jobs in order to earn enough money to go to college, and attended college in the fall of 1963.
For two-and-a-half years Gordon attended Miami University at Oxford, Ohio before dropping out due to frustration with the curriculum and the conservative atmosphere. As a U.S. Navy reservist, Gordon participated in antiwar demonstrations and voter registration drives in the South. He also managed to find creative means of avoiding a tour in Viet Nam. Gordon was a member of the Black Theatre Workshop in Harlem, which was an appendage of the New Lafayette Theatre. The artistic director was Robert Macbeth and also associated were playwrights Ed Bullins and Richard Wesley.
Charles Gordon name was so similar to that of playwright, Charles Gordone (No Place to Be Somebody, 1969) that he took on the name "OyamO". OyamO developed from a skewed interpretation of his University of Miami-Ohio t-shirt, which was coined by some Harlem youths in the late 60s. The capitalized "O" is the playwright's own touch. OyamO had been writing and also had been published during this period. One notable publication was The Breakout (1969) printed in Woodie King and Ron Milner's Black Drama Anthology (1971).
During the late 1960s through the early 1970s OyamO had already been produced as well as published and had won the Rockefeller Fellowship and Guggenheim Fellowship.
OyamO returned to college and took some courses at New York University and Brooklyn College. By 1970 earned a B.A. in liberal arts from the College of New Rochelle. In1978, he applied to and was accepted to the graduate playwriting program at Yale University upon the strength of his writings and publications. OyamO also participated on the committee, which chose Lloyd Richards as Dean of the Yale School of Drama. In1981, his work The Resurrection of Lady Lester was premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre and received favorable notices and he also presented at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s. The story dealt with Lester Young, the famous tenor saxophonist.
After OyamO's 1981 graduation from Yale, he continued to write and publish. His works were also produced at various theatres including the Manhattan Theatre Club. In1980s, he taught workshops and as an adjunct professor, instructor and guest lecturer at various colleges and universities like Princeton and the College of New Rochelle. In1989, OyamO began teaching at the University of Michigan to eventually become an associate professor of theatre and English. He also teaches playwriting there. OyamO is totally committed to the process of writing, even at the detriment of a social life.
In1992, OyamO completed I Am A Man, which was commissioned by the Working Theatre in New York City. Through interviews in Memphis and elsewhere, he learned that Jones had been fired after the strike ended and died in 1989 after marrying a woman who rescued him from living in his pick up. I Am A Man opened at the Meadow Brook in Rochester in February 1996 and again at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
OyamO famous Orpheus was produced at the Performance Network in Ann Arbor, the Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey and was presented again at the Karamu House in Cleveland. OyamO was working on a film adaptation of the I Am A Man and a program for the Famous Black American Anthology series, both for Home Box Office. Stanford University and the Seattle Children's Theatre have also commissioned him to write plays. OyamO currently resides in Ypsilanti. His wife died several years ago and his children are grown and in college. In1996, his play, Pink and Say, represented the story of two boys, one white and one black during the Civil War. The play was commissioned by the Seattle Children's Theatre. In1998, his most recent surreal drama, Let Me Live, was produced at The Goodman Theatre. According to the web site at The Goodman Theatre, "OyamO's galvanizing drama Let Me Live plunges the audience into the surreal world of a 1932 Georgia prison and the brutal existence of the inhabitants of cell number 7. In a wildly dynamic style, the lives and crimes of eight black men weave in and out of the reality of the play to tell the larger story of the injustices and tragedies of the African American experience."
In May 2, 1994 I Am A Man opened at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. In March 8, 1995 the play opened at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. The play also opened at the True blood Theatre on November 9, 1995 at the University of Michigan with Wallace Bridges as T.O. Jones and Joseph Moore as Swahili. The title is taken from the strike placards worn by the striking workers. Set in Memphis in 1968, it is the story of a fairly simple, fairly idealistic union president, T.O. Jones who launches 800 sanitation worker to strike but gets swept up into events that runaway with him like a maverick tornado.
This play is not about Martin Luther King Jr. or the Civil Rights movement, but a play about an everyman who sets out to right some wrongs, but gets in over his head. Jones is mentioned in Joan T. Beifuss' At the River I Stand.
Contributing to the conflict includes the N.A.A.C.P who wants King to come down to Memphis to march, the National Union representative who want to establish a foothold in Tennessee, the black power movement who want to cast Jones as their "warrior leader," and the complacently condescending white mayor who wants the whole mess to go away.
King's presence hovers over the play through voice only or through a performer. The cast is multicultural with its Southern black working class embodied in Jones and his wife and his friend Rev. Moore, the aspiring black middle-class as seen in the conciliatory councilman, college educated black power militants, white local liberals, do-good Episcopalian activist priest, Jewish assimilationist left wing union rep, and Yankee bourgeois black culture.
Overshadowed in all of this is T.O.'s wife and family who are apparently not as understanding about T.O.'s sacrifices as perhaps Coretta King was of Dr. King's.
There is a lively and frequently exhilarating argument among the various cultures. OyamO finds raging debate, often black versus black, on empowerment, public leadership, and political progress. Comedy is found often through Jones' friend, Rev. Moore, and through the invaders, the militant black movement. Similarly, the dialogues between proper English and Jones' ungrammatical dialect is very funny.
Setting is simple offering rapid movement through various locations around Memphis: the Beale Street bar, the Mayor's office, the small N.A.A.C.P. office, the church, the union hall, the Lorraine Motel, and the garbage laden streets. Slides reveal the history of the times as fast changing lights carry the production to successive locales.
At the play's end, King is murdered and the strikers "win" an eight-cent-an-hour raise. Although there is an upbeat ending to the play, the tone may conclude the "true ending" lies in Jones despairing epiphany, which serves as an indictment of the system and the pettiness of human nature. Speaking styles cut across class, race and geography; the make up the American voice.


1. Bommer, Lawrence. '68 Strike Catches Strikers in 'I Am A Man.'" The Chicago Tribune. (April 29, 1994).

2. Bridges, Wallace. OyamO Interview. July 25, 1996.
Chaffin, Jessica. OyamO Strikes It Rich With 'I Am A Man.'" The Michigan Daily, p. 9 (November 10, 1995).

3. Cose, Ellis. "One Drop of Bloody History." Newsweek (February 13, 1995).

4. OyamO. I Am A Man. New York: Applause Books, 1995.

5. Potter, Christopher. "'I Am A Man' Revisits a Cathartic Episode in Black American
History." The Ann Arbor News, C8 (November 10, 1995).

6. Rose, Lloyd. "'I Am A Man:' A Strike for Justice." The Washington Post. C, 1:1 (March 10, 1995).

7. Smith, Sid. "Bleak Comedy Uproots 'I Am A Man.'" The Chicago Tribune. (May 3, 1994).

8. Snyder, Jim. "Playwright With a 'Wild Side.'" The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 41, #31, A6. (April 14, 1995).

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