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Detroit theater brings story of Broadway’s first black megastar to life

Charles Gilpin sits shirtless on the stage in a performance of the emperor jones
New York Public Library Digital Collections
Plowshares Theatre Company is premiering, "N", by playwright Adrienne Earle Pender which recounts the story of Broadway's first breakout African-American star, Charles Gilpin. The picture above is of Gilpin in Eugene O'Neill's play "The Emperor Jones."

Charles S. Gilpin was one of Broadway’s first breakout stars. In the 1920s, the African-American actor received critical acclaim from both white and black audiences. His performance as the lead in Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones cemented his reputation as one of the best actors of the era. But after a falling out with the playwright, Gilpin faded into obscurity. So, what happened?

The play N by Adrienne Earle Pender attempts to answer that question. It explores the relationship between Gilpin and O’Neill, and their diverging fates. Detroit's Plowshares Theatre Companyis performing the play at Marygrove Theatre through February 16. The company's artistic director Gary Anderson joined Stateside to discuss the play’s layered questions about interracial friendships, what artists of color must do to succeed, and the nature of collaboration.

Listen above to hear a selection from N performed by lead actors T. Pharaoh Muhammad and Lisa Loggins.

Anderson said that O’Neill wrote the lead character in The Emperor Jones with the intention of giving the role to a white actor named Charles Ellis. Ellis would have played the character in blackface, which was a common practice in early 20th century American theaters. But once O’Neill saw Gilpin’s performance in the 1919 premiere of John Drinkwater's Abraham Lincoln, he wanted Gilpin to play Brutus Jones. It turned out to be a wise choice for O’Neill.

“This is the first show of his that made real money,” said Anderson. “The Emperor Jones was a bona fide commercial hit, one that was different than any of the other shows that he had done prior to this.”

The play was a turning point in O’Neill's career, who would go on to become one of America's most famous playwrights. The success of The Emperor Jones, Anderson said, was due in large part to Gilpin’s masterful performance. But tension between the two men grew over the use of the frequent use of the n-word in O’Neill’s script. Gilpin would often change the word to “negro” or “colored” during performances. He wanted O’Neill to remove the offensive term entirely, but the playwright refused. The tense dynamic between the actor and playwright about who is responsible for the success of a character runs throughout Plowshares’ performance of “N.”

“One of the arguments we deal with in this play is who has the authority or who has the right in regards to carving the character out, fleshing the character out,” Anderson explained. “Is it solely the product of the playwright? Or is it solely the product of the actor who fleshes the character out?”

This conversation about theater creation and collaboration, Anderson said, is “enhanced because of the dynamic of race.” Gilpin was able to add a level of humanity and dimension to Brutus Jones that O’Neill didn’t initially write into the play.

“That’s not something O'Neill would have known. That’s not something O’Neill would have interpreted or even thought about. It’s something that this black man, that had actually lived that life, brought to the character,” Anderson explained.

T. Pharaoh Muhammad portrays Charles Gilpin in N. Some of his recent credits include Chicago Med and the Netflix drama Black and Privileged. He says that struggling with how a character is written in a script is something that actors still grapple with today. His co-star Lisa Loggins, who portrays Charles' wife Florence, agrees. Throughout her career, Loggins said, she has had to negotiate specific scenes and dialogue with the director.

“Hopefully you have a director who allows you the creative freedom to do more with the character,” Loggins said. “I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to say what I will not do.”

Creating authentic representation of characters of color in the theater world requires more than just a change in how shows are cast, according to Anderson. Playwrights with diverse identities need opportunities to get their works on stage, so that characters and shows can accurately portray the experience of marginalized people.

“The times in which The Emperor Jones was created, there were not opportunities of black actors of Gilpin's skill to regularly work on plays written by black writers,” Anderson said. “That’s still important today. I don’t want white writers attempting to tell my story.”

N is on stage Marygrove Theatre through February 16. You can find more information at Plowshares Theatre Company’swebsite.

Support for arts and culture coverage is supported in part by an award from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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