In 1920, Eugene O’Neill turned a Black actor into a star by casting him as the lead in his play “The Emperor Jones” — and then fired him for having changed the script during performances to avoid repeating the racial slur that the playwright favored.
The actor, Charles Gilpin, is the subject of “The Black Emperor of Broadway,” a new movie that launches online today, and will be released as a DVD on October 6.
“The story about the battle over the N word is true,” says theater artist Adrienne Pender. “Charles must have said it during rehearsals, but early during the run, as he got confident, he stopped saying it.” Things heated up when Gilpin went on tour. “Reports came back to O’Neill from some crew members that Charles wasn’t just changing that one word, he was changing other sections as well…He felt he knew what Brutus Jones would or would not say. O’Neill put his foot down.”
The much younger Paul Robeson took over the role in the Broadway revival and then starred in the 1933 movie adaptation. Robeson remains famous. Gilpin died in 1930, buried in an unmarked grave, and has been largely forgotten. But Gilpin is the actor who originated the role of Brutus Jones, the Pullman porter who becomes the dictator of a tropical island, and Gilpin was initially showered with attention for his performance — invited to the White House, honored by the Drama League, although they did not invite him to the 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 recalls a remark O’Neill made near the end of his life: “Of all the actors who ever played in my plays, only one ever fully realized a part as I heard it in my head, as I wrote it and imagined it from the beginning – that was Charles Gilpin.’”
Pender has a special connection with Gilpin. She’s related. Her cousin Jackie is Gilpin’s granddaughter. “The family story was just that we had an actor in the family who made a name for himself in a play by O’Neill, and that was literally the extent of what I heard.” It was only when she turned from acting to playwriting that his life story really registered with her…vividly. One night six years ago, “I had a dream about Charles, just telling me, ‘it’s time.’ And I woke up and said, okay, I get it.” She started researching and writing a play, which she entitled “N,” and which has been produced by theaters in Raleigh and Detroit. Screenwriter Ian Bowater and director Arthur Egeli have adapted “N” into the film “The Black Emperor of Broadway.”
When Pender started on her journey to discover her little-known relative, “I wondered why I’d never heard about him before, and what a huge gap in my education that was. I talked to some Black actors I knew, and only a very few of them had heard about Charles.” There is little written about him — only a chapter here or there, such 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 memoir “Act One” about making his Broadway debut as a performer in “The Emperor Jones” at the age of 22 opposite Gilpin, who by then was lost in an alcoholic fog. (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 is so little information available about Gilpin “gave me some freedom to write him as I wanted to, I wasn’t tied to too much history.”
Much of what Pender did discover about Gilpin was found through her research on O’Neill, especially on an Artist in Residence fellowship at Tao House, the National Historic Site where O’Neill lived when he wrote his great later 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 wrote back immediately, and said that I didn’t need permission (public domain), and oh, by the way, we have literally just now finished creating an Artist in Residence fellowship.”) “I used the residency time to comb the files for tidbits on Charles. I found letters from Gene about Charles; I found blurbs about Charles in Gene’s working diary.”
Much of the movie, as the play, focuses on the relationship between Gilpin and O’Neill. Pender was originally in fact going to create a two-character play. “But I realized there are things that Charles as a Negro in 1920 would not or could not say to a White man. There needed to be another Negro 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 W.E.B. DuBois.)
I have always felt ambivalent about “The Emperor Jones,” a bit baffled by the continuing accolades. I wondered after Pender’s deep dive into the playwright and the play what her view of it is.
“I’ve always thought it was racist,” she replies. “But I also thought that it was just one of those pieces of art that had to be viewed in the context of the time it was written. I’m not a believer that we should completely toss ‘Gone With the Wind;’ there just needs to be discussion about the context of the novel AND of the time of the movie.