Adrienne Earle Pender knows why actor Charles Sidney Gilpin isn't celebrated alongside Paul Robeson, James Baldwin, and other early pioneers of black theater in America. Alcoholism, she admits, was part of the problem; so was an artist's ego that sometimes sabotaged his relationships with loved ones and colleagues.
But the main reason Gilpin remains a footnote is because he stood up to playwright Eugene O'Neill, refusing to repeat the ethnic slur that laced O'Neill's 1920 drama, The Emperor Jones. Pender, a Raleigh-based playwright, probes the ethics of Gilpin and O'Neill's tragic intersection in her new play, N. Its world premiere opens this week at Theatre in the Park.
In 1920, Gilpin was one of a handful of professional black actors struggling to find work in New York. Though minstrelsy, once Broadway's most popular form of entertainment, was fading, blackface remained the industry standard for black characters in live theater. Prior to the work of black playwrights during the Harlem Renaissance, the only roles for black actors on Broadway were as servants and slaves. Indeed, Gilpin was cast as the lead in the premiere of The Emperor Jones only because O'Neill had seen him portray a slave in the stage biography Abraham Lincoln.
By many standards, Jones was a groundbreaking work. O'Neill's first box-office success, it played for six months on Broadway, relocating twice to bigger theaters before embarking on a two-year American tour. In a thinly veiled critique of the U.S. invasion of Haiti in 1915, the bombastic, profane, and corrupt title character effectively obliterated the familiar, comic black stereotypes that had been the norm up to then.
Brutus Jones, a one-time Pullman porter, is a thief and murderer who'd escaped a Southern jail before conning the inhabitants of a West Indian island into declaring him emperor through lies, graft, and physical violence. O'Neill's one-act vividly captures his desperate decline and fall.
In 1920, casting a black actor as a black leading character cemented the work as a cause célèbre, and glowing reviews propelled Gilpin to the cultural forefront of his day. "He was considered a leading figure in black America in the 1920s," Pender says. "He did go to the White House and meet President Harding. He did win a medal from the NAACP, and he did help start several negro theater groups as he toured around the country."
But a problem was brewing during the initial New York run of The Emperor Jones and its subsequent tour: the ethnic slur Jones uses to describe the native black inhabitants of his island. A black actor had to say that word thirty-two times in each show. For Gilpin, each performance was harder than the last. He repeatedly asked O'Neill to remove the slurs from the text. When that failed, Gilpin took them out on his own intiative, in several years of performances, subbing in terms such as "black boy" and "negro.".
"Charles must have said it at least through the rehearsal process," Pender says. "I can't imagine O'Neill would have let him even open for the first time if he wasn't. But as soon as O'Neill wasn't in the room, what I've found suggests that Gilpin always changed it."
Gilpin's dissatisfaction and drinking worsened over time, exacerbated by the conspicuously cooler reception from black newspapers and audiences of the time. A 1921 review in Negro World concluded, "We imagine if Mr. Gilpin is an intelligent and loyal Negro, his heart must ache and rebel within him as he is forced to belie his race." When the work was staged in Harlem, Langston Hughes recalled that the audience "howled with laughter."
Ultimately, Gilpin's clandestine dramaturgy caught up with him, and O'Neill fired him at the end of the American tour. Paul Robeson replaced him for the first New York revival and the play's London production—a fateful move that launched the actor to stardom.
Meanwhile, Gilpin's career went into free fall. O'Neill was the only prominent playwright of the time writing roles for black actors; after Jones, he wrote the drama All God's Chillun Got Wings in 1924. "Other than those two plays, there weren't any other opportunities for a negro actor to appear in anything of quality," Pender says. "Gilpin had absolutely nowhere to go."
This development also conceals a mystery. Pender notes that by the mid-1920s, O'Neill was already a known commodity. "He was notorious; he didn't forgive people," she says. "If you crossed him once, you were done."
But after firing Gilpin, O'Neill subsequently allowed him to direct and star in a second revival, in 1926, in New York. Pender has ideas about why he did, which she probes in her script.
"To the very end of his life," Pender says, "O'Neill said the only actor who ever really got Brutus Jones was Charles. I think O'Neill saw something of himself, and something of his family, in Charles."
Audiences can enter that fractious relationship when actors Hazel Edmond, Byron Jennings II, and Ira David Wood IV take on this historical theatrical argument starting this week.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Speak No Evil."