Horton Foote and Charles Gordone: A Lesson in Diversity

Screenshot from the film To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) with Gregory Peck and Brock Peters.

Screenshot from the film To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) with Gregory Peck and Brock Peters.

Back in the day, when I was director of the theater program at Texas A&M University, we invited Mr. Horton Foote to speak to our students. Foote was a distinguished playwright whose plays were compared to the plays of Anton Chekhov. He had won two Oscars as screenwriter for two outstanding films: To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies. I was a great admirer of his plays, but I also felt indebted to Mr. Foote (“Please call me Horton,” were his first words to me) for his blessed Tender Mercies. The film had helped me to get through a hard time once when I was in a bad way in Albuquerque.

Besides, one of my student assistants, Ms. Kelly Roman Carter—today an educator in Texas—had recently directed three of his one-act plays as a student project, and offered to do whatever work needed to be done in order to facilitate his visit.

Mr. Charles Gordone, another distinguished playwright and theater man in his own right, was in the faculty of the English Department at A&M in those days. He was the first African-American playwright to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and had become for me a friend, a mentor, and an inspiration. Horton was all Texas and all southern gentility; Charles was mid-western and had come to us from the rough and tumble of the New York and L.A. theater scenes. Horton was soft-spoken and an exquisite gentleman; Charles spoke in a low growl that intimidated his enemies, but which was only a defense for his touching vulnerability. Since I had witnessed many encounters between giant artistic personalities turn disastrous, I resolved to do my best to keep these two luminaries apart.

Charles Gordone (1925-1995). Credit: Susan Kouyomjian Gordone.

Charles Gordone (1925-1995). Credit: Susan Kouyomjian Gordone.

Upon Horton’s arrival I inquired what he wished to do during his time at A&M.

 “I’d like to meet Charles Gordone,” he said.

If the angel Gabriel had blown his horn to announce the beginning of the Apocalypse I could not have been more disturbed. I swallowed hard, arranged the meeting, and asked my friend Bob Ivie, Head of Speech Communication and Theater, to join us at the meeting. I was counting on Bob to serve as referee if the occasion turned sour.

You know that question people ask if you had a choice which three people from history would you invite for supper, and you expect as a guest to bask in their glory and learn from their wisdom? I had no idea this would be that, but that’s what the encounter turned into. Charles and Horton spoke—for a solid hour—as if they had known each other for years. Not about their work but about other people’s work; about the state of theater (Horton was concerned that modern productions were banning “feeling” from the stage); about recent films (Charles believed that Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was sending the “wrong message”); and about a myriad things that I can no longer remember. I sat dumb and perplexed listening as one listens to the song of a crystal stream up in the mountains in spring.

Then Charles, who knew me better and had sensed my doubts, looked at me and said, “You see? We are different, but we’re the same.”

He did not need to expound on the moral: only when we acknowledge our differences, do we see our similarities; and only when we accept our similarities, do we come to know our differences.

I keep the books of plays and films of Charles and Horton together in my bookshelf. The copy of No Place to Be Somebody signed by Charles is one of my greatest treasures; and the three volumes of Horton’s Orphans’ Home Cycle are a reminder of an old agreement: that one day we would work together on the plays.

That promise, like that of America, remains to be kept. But I can still hear their Voices, and that must suffice.


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