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The Black Emperor of Broadway. Charles Gilpin, Eugene ONeills Great Forgotten Actor – New York Theater

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In 1920, Eugene ONeill turned a black actor into a star by placing him as the lead in his play The Emperor Jones – then fired him for changing the script during performances to avoid repeating the racial insult the playwright favored.

The actor, Charles Gilpin, is the subject of The Black Emperor of Broadway, a new film which launches online today and will be released on DVD on October 6th.

The story of the battle for the N word is true, says theater artist Adrienne Pender. Charles must have said it during rehearsals, but at the start of the race, as he was confident, he stopped saying it. Things heated up when Gilpin went on tour. “Reports came back to O’Neill from some crew members whoCharlesnot only was changing that word, he was also changing other sections… He felt he knew what Brutus Jones would or didn’t mean.O’Neill put his foot down.

Paul Robeson, much younger, reprized the role in the Broadway revival, then starred in the 1933 film adaptation. Robeson remains famous. Gilpin died in 1930, buried in an unmarked grave, and has been largely forgotten. But Gilpin is the actor behind the role of Brutus Jones, the Pullman bearer who becomes the dictator of a tropical island, and Gilpin was initially inundated with attention for his performance – guest at the White House, honored by the Drama League, although they didn’t invite him to dinner in his honor at first because of his race, until O’Neill and others protested.

Indeed, despite the ugliness of the split between playwright and performer, Pender remembers a remark O’Neill made towards the end of his life: Of all the actors who played in my plays, one only one has ever fully realized a role as I have heard it. in my head, as I wrote and imagined from the start, it was Charles Gilpin.

Pender has a special bond with Gilpin. It is related. His cousin Jackie is Gilpins’ granddaughter. The family story was just that we had an actor in the family who made a name for himself in an O’Neill play, and that was literally the extent of what I heard. It wasn’t until she made the transition from acting to writing drama that her life story really caught on with her. One night six years ago, I dreamed of Charles, just telling myself that it was time. And I woke up and said, okay, I get it. She started researching and writing a play she called N, which was produced by the Raleigh and Detroit theaters. Screenwriter Ian Bowater and director Arthur Egeli adapted “N” in the movie The Black Emperor of Broadway.

When Pender began his journey to find his little-known relative, “I wondered why I had never heard of him before, and what a huge gap in my upbringing that was. I spoke to black actors I knew, and only a few of them had heard of Charles. There is little written about him – only a chapter here and there, as in a book called “A Beautiful Pageant; African American Theater and Drama and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910-1927 ”, and Moss Hart’s account in his“ Act One ”memoir about his Broadway debut as a performer in“ The Emperor Jones ”at the age 22-year-old opposite Gilpin, who was then lost in an alcohol haze. (Chuck Cooper portrayed Gilpin in the recent dramatization of Act One at Lincoln Center.) “There is no official, serious biography on Charles,” Pender says, “but there should be.”

That there was so little information available about Gilpin “gave me some freedom to write it the way I wanted, I wasn’t tied to too much history.”

Much of what Pender found out about Gilpin came about through his research on O’Neill, particularly during an Artist-in-Residence Fellowship atTao House, the national historic site where O’Neill lives when he wrote his later major plays like The Iceman Cometh, Moon for the Misbegotten and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. (She had written to the Eugene O’Neill Foundation for permission to use scenes from ‘The Emperor Jones’ in the play. “They responded immediately and said I did not need permission (public domain ), and oh, by Actually, we just created an Artist-in-Residence Grant. ”)“ I used the residency time to comb through the files for information on Charles. I have found letters from Gene on Charles; I found some blurbs on Charles in Gene’s work journal.

Much of the film, like the play, focuses on the relationship between Gilpin and O’Neill. Pender was actually originally going to create a two-character play. “But I realized there are things Charles as a negro in 1920 didn’t want or couldn’t say to a white man. There had to be another black character, so I decided to make that character Charles’ wife, Florence. (In the movie, John Hensley plays O’Neill and Nija Okoro plays Florence, but there are a dozen other characters, including O’Neill’s colleagues at the Provincetown Players, as well as Robeson and WEB DuBois.)

I have always felt ambivalent about “The Emperor Jones”, a little bewildered by the continued praise. I wondered after her immersion in the playwright and the play what she thought of it.

“I always thought it was racist,” she replies. “But I also thought it was just one of those works of art that had to be seen in the context of the time it was written. I don’t think we should completely throw away “Gone with the Wind”; we just have to discuss the context of the novel AND the time of the film.

“But now I think some works just can’t be redeemed, even with the context. Deleting the ‘N’ word like Charles did doesn’t make Emperor Jones less problematic, nor less racist. I don’t think it can be played today, even as a period piece.

(There have actually been a few recent productions of The Emperor Jones in New York City, one until 2017, another I saw in 2009 with the great John Douglas Thompson.)

So why was he (is) so admired?

“He was admired in his day for several reasons; there was really a difference between American theater before O’Neill and theater after him, and most of his early works were paradigm shifts from what came before. He had won his second Pulitzer Prize while The Emperor Jones was on Broadway. (The first two of four he won were for ‘Beyond the Horizon’ and ‘Anna Christie’) “So on the one hand, The Emperor Jones was O’Neill’s last play to push some boundaries. BUT – it became a success because of Charles. Emperor Jones made a lot of money for O’Neill and for the Provincetown players. Charles’s performance was considered epic, eye-opening, and he was immediately hailed as the greatest actor of the generation. Reviews of the play from 1920 and 1921 brought up the problems with the play itself at the time – but everyone agreed that the reason for seeing the play was Charles.

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