Forgotten Actor’s Fight for Respect featured in “N”

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Actors (l to r)  Hazel Brown, Byron Jennings II, and Ira David Wood IV in N  (Photo: Catherine Davis Photography)

Some historic events are not always the first attempt at change. Rosa Parks’ civil rights activism that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott followed a simliar incident on a different bus by 15-year-old Claudette Colvin ten months earlier than Parks. The 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr. was originally proposed in 1941 by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin as a protest march calling for desegregation in the armed forces and against discrimination in the defense industry. Likewise, even though the character of Brutus Jones in THE EMPEROR JONES was a star-making role for Paul Robeson he was not the first man to play the coveted role. That distinction was bestowed upon Charles S. Gilpin, Broadway’s first African American dramatic star.

In 1921, Gilpin became a star. He was awarded the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal. Also, Gilpin was honored by an invitation to the White House by President Warren G. Harding, the first time an African American actor received such recognition. A year later, the Dumas Dramatic Club (now the Karamu Players) of Cleveland renamed itself the Gilpin Players in his honor. All of this due to one role that was taken away from him changing his life forever.

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Charles S. Gilpin as Brutus Jones

Now, in a new play, simply entitled N, playwright Adrienne Earle Pender has dramatized the events surrounding the production and the near violent animosity that developed between the show’s original star and its author, Eugene O’Neill.

Why is this production so significant? Beyond the impact it had on the careers of Paul Robeson and O’Neill, this was the first time an African American actor had been cast to play an African American character in a Broadway drama written by a white playwright. The tradition was to hire a white actor and have them perform in blackface.  Although the other men built their professional legacies from their association with the play, Gilpin’s legacy as Broadway’s first African American dramatic star has almost been erased from history.

In 1916, Charles S. Gilpin attracted attention for his memorable appearance in whiteface as Jacob McCloskey, a slave owner and villain of Dion Boucicault’s THE OCTOROON. Gilpin’s reputation allowed him to get offered the role of Rev. William Curtis in the 1919 premier of ABRAHAM LINCOLN by John Drinkwater.

Gilpin’s Broadway debut led to his being cast in the premier of THE EMPEROR JONES. His performance garnered Gilpin tremendous critical acclaim, including the Drama League of New York naming him as one of the 10 people in 1920 who had done the most for American theater. He was the first African American to be honored with that achievement. Although Gilpin continued to perform the role of Brutus Jones during the U.S. tour that followed the Broadway closing of the play, he had a falling out with O’Neill. Gilpin wanted O’Neill to remove the word “nigger”, which was spoken frequently throughout the play. The playwright refused, asserting its use was consistent with his dramatic intentions. Nevertheless, Gilpin began to rewrite his lines. He altered the racial slur into “black buddy” or something less offensive in performances. This only angered O’Neill more. After the closing of the U.S. Tour, Gilpin was fired, eventually replaced by Paul Robeson for the London premier.

Playwright Pender was selected for the Eugene O’Neill Foundation’s Tao House Fellowship in 2016. The Foundation holds an O’Neill Festival every year, one of the largest in the country, and her play, N, was selected to receive a workshop and a staged reading at last September’s festival. It was also selected as a finalist in the 2016 Dayton Playhouse FutureFest, a festival of new works.

N is produced by Theatre in the Park in Raleigh, North Carolina. The world premiere runs through February 26 at the Theatre in the Park, 107 Pullen Rd, Raleigh, NC 27607. For more information call (919) 831.6058 or go to the website http://theatreinthepark.com/

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