Whose Role Is It, Anyway?: Charles Gilpin and the Harlem Renaissance

  • David Krasner


In more than 30 cities and in over 200 performances, Charles Gilpin played the leading role of Eugene O’Neills The Emperor Jones during the play’s first nationwide tour (see figure 13)3 During the tour (1921–1922), the Boston Globe reported that Gilpin’s acting “of all these exacting scenes cannot be too highly praised. Only an actor of genuine power could save some of them from becoming ludicrous.” It is a remarkable performance, said the paper, “one not soon to be forgotten.”4 Critic Philip Hale added that Gilpin “is the play” and that with “genuine tragic power” his portrayal of the Emperor is “remarkable.”5 Throughout the tour Gilpin reaped praise after praise for his performance.6 He had previously performed in the play, which opened November 1920, over two hundred times in Greenwich Village and on Broadway. Heywood Broun of the New York Tribune observed that in the opening production Gilpin was “great,” and his performance reached “heroic stature.”7 Kenneth MacGowan wrote in the New York Globe that Gilpin’s rendition of the Emperor was “a sustained and splendid piece of acting.”8 Alexander Woollcott commented in the New York Timed that Gilpin’s acting was “an uncommonly powerful and imaginative performance,” adding, “in several respects unsurpassed this season in New York.”9 Gilpin, the first black actor to achieve Broadway stardom in a nonmusical drama, portrayed the beleaguered character Brutus Jones, the Emperor of a Caribbean island whose career as a con artist and huckster helped him gain the position of royalty.


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© David Krasner 2002

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  • David Krasner

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