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

  • David Krasner
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Abstract

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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Notes

  1. 1.
    Quoted in Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O’Neill (New York: Harper, 1962), 450Google Scholar
  2. Louis Sheaffer, O’Neill: Son & Artist (New York: Paragon House, 1973), 37.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Eugene O’Neill, The Emperor Jones (1920) in Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill (New York: Modern Library, 1941), 18.Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    John G. Monroe, “Charles Gilpin and the Drama League Controversy,” Black American Literary Forum 16 (1982), 141.Google Scholar
  5. 11.
    Laurilyn J. Harris, “Charles Gilpin: Opening the Way for the American Black Actor,” Theatre History Studies 2 (1982), 100.Google Scholar
  6. 24.
    James V. Hatch, “Here Comes Everybody: Scholarship and Black Theatre History,” in Interpreting the Theatrical Past: Essays in the Historiography of Performance, ed. Thomas Postlewait and Bruce A. McConachie (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989), 160.Google Scholar
  7. 25.
    See David Krasner, “Charles S. Gilpin: The Actor Before the Emperor,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre 4.3 (Fall 1992), 62–75.Google Scholar
  8. 27.
    Gilpin, from an interview with Mary B. Mullet, “Where Do I Go From Here?,” American Magazine 91 (June 1921), 53.Google Scholar
  9. 35.
    William Bridge’s review, Negro World, 26 March 1921; quoted in Tony Martin, Literary Garveyism: Garvey, Black Arts, and the Harlem Renaissance (Dover, MA: Majority Press, 1983), 10.Google Scholar
  10. 59.
    Toni Morrison, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” Michigan Quarterly Review 28.4 (1987), 11.Google Scholar
  11. 60.
    Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., Bearing Witness: Selections from African American Autobi-ography in the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon, 1991), 4.Google Scholar
  12. 68.
    Lawrence W Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 223–24.Google Scholar
  13. 69.
    Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 52.Google Scholar
  14. 71.
    Deborah R. Geis, Postmodern Theatric(k)s: Monologue in Contemporary American Drama (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 33Google Scholar
  15. 72.
    Henry T. Sampson, The Ghost Walks: A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Busi-ness, 1965–1910 (Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1988), 526.Google Scholar
  16. 76.
    David Carb, “To See Or Not To See,” Bookman 59 (July 1924), 582.Google Scholar
  17. 80.
    Ronald Wainscott, Staging O’Neill: The Experimental Years, 1920–1934 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 57.Google Scholar

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© David Krasner 2002

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  • David Krasner

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