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29 Facts on Charles S. Gilpin and The Emperor Jones

  1. Born in November 20, 1878 in Richmond, Virginia, Charles S. Gilpin attended a segregated Catholic school until the age of 12, before seeking work to help support his family.
  2. In 1896 at the age of 18, Gilpin joined a minstrel show, leaving Richmond and beginning a life on the road that lasted for many years. 
  3. When between performances on stage, like many other actors of the era, Charles Gilpin supplemented his income with odd jobs as a printer, elevator operator, barber, boxing trainer and railroad porter. 
  4. He joined the Canadian Jubilee Singers of Hamilton, Ontario in 1903.
  5. In 1915, Gilpin joined the Anita Bush Players as they moved from Harlem’s Lincoln Theater to the Lafayette Theatre. As New York theater was expanding, this was a time when the theatrical careers of many famous black actors were launched.
  6. In 1916, Gilpin made a memorable appearance in whiteface as Jacob McCloskey, a slave owner and villain of Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon. 
  7. Though Gilpin left Anita Bush’s company over a salary dispute, his reputation allowed him to get the role of Rev. William Curtis in the 1919 premier of John Drinkwater’s  Abraham Lincoln.
  8. By 1920 Charles Gilpin was a veteran of thirty years in show business. His experiences included early work in vaudeville and minstrel shows, an engagement with Bert Williams and George Walker’s Abyssinia company in 1906, Black theatrical stock companies, and a featured role in John Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln on Broadway in 1919. 
  9. The Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill was first staged on November 1, 1920, by the Provincetown Players at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City. In the title role as Brutus Jones, Charles Sidney Gilpin became the first African American actor to play a lead role in a drama on Broadway.
  10. The Emperor Jones – Initial Production History
    • Provincetown Playhouse (Nov 1, 1920 – Dec 25, 1920) 
    • Selwyn Theatre (Dec 27, 1920 – Jan 28, 1921) 1st Broadway Run
    • Princess Theatre (Jan 29, 1921 – May 21, 1921) Broadway Extension
  1. The 1920 production of The Emperor Jones was Eugene O’Neill’s first big box-office hit. It established him as a successful playwright.
  2. Charles Gilpin’s performance as Brutus Jones dominated the remainder of his theatrical life. Including the Broadway run of The Emperor Jones, a two-season 30+ city road tour of the U.S. and Canada, revivals, and special engagements, Gilpin performed the role of Brutus Jones roughly 1,500 times before his death. Becoming associated a particular role and performing that character multiple times was quite common for theatrical actors of the period. 
  3. In 1921, Charles Gilpin was one of ten artists to receive a New York Drama League Award for the 1920-21 season. He was allowed to attend the League’s ceremonial dinner to officially receive the award only after a bitter controversy in which some members tried to block his invitation.
  4. A year later, the Dumas Dramatic Club of Karamu House in Cleveland renamed itself the Gilpin Players in his honor.
  5. Charles Gilpin balked at what appeared to him to be an excessive and repetitive use of the term nigger, preferring instead to use the less offensive terms black-baby, Negro, or colored man. According to O’Neill’s biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O’Neill, bristling at the actor’s audacity, was alleged to have said to Gilpin, “If I ever catch you rewriting my lines again, you black bastard, I’m going to beat you up”. The more authoritative O’Neill biography by Louis Sheaffer deletes the “black bastard” epithet, claiming that O’Neill said, ” “black bastard” epithet, claiming that O’Neill said, “If you change the lines again, I’ll beat the hell out of you!”
  6. By the time of his death, Eugene O’Neill was considered one of the 20th centuries greatest playwright having earned the 1936 Nobel Prize for Literature and four Pulitzer Prizes for Drama among other accolades.
  7. Charles Gilpin received the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Spingarn Medal in 1921 and was honored by a formal dinner at the White House hosted by President Warren G. Harding.
  8. Charles Gilpin married two times. His first wife was Florence Howard (married c. 1897), with whom he had one child, Paul Gilpin. He met his second wife, Lillian Wood, when he was with the Lafayette Players. He spent the final years of his life with his common law wife, Alice Bynum.
  9. On May 6, 1930, Charles Gilpin died at the age of 51 in Eldridge Park, NJ. Note: Average life expectancy of a “Negro male” in 1930 was 48 years. Gilpin was initially buried in New Jersey by Alice Bynum, but his legal wife, Lillian Wood, had his body exhumed and buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, NY. Wood arranged for her remains to be placed with her husband following her death, which occurred 16 years later.
  10. In recognition of his groundbreaking work, Gilpin was posthumously inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1991.
  11. Although many biographies repeat the allegation that Charles Gilpin lost work opportunities due to alcoholism, contemporary reviews and memoirs provide little evidence the actor ever missed performances or compromised his work due to alcohol abuse.
  12. The Emperor Jones was adapted for a 1933 feature film starring Paul Robeson and directed by Dudley Murphy, an avant-garde filmmaker of O’Neill’s Greenwich Village circle who pursued the reluctant playwright for a decade before getting the rights from him.
  13. On January 7, 1933, an operatic version of The Emperor Jones premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York with baritone Lawrence Tibbett playing the title role in blackface.
  14. On May 11, 1938, British Guyanese actor Robert Adams became the first Black actor to perform a lead role on British television when he played the title role of The Emperor Jones.
  15. On July 7, 1953, African American expatriate actor and singer Gordon Heath performed the title role of The Emperor Jones for BBC television.
  16. On February 1955, NBC presented the Kraft Television Theatre production of The Emperor Jones, starring Ossie Davis in the title role.
  17. Mexican American ballet dancer José Limón choreographed and performed the title role of a ballet adaptation of The Emperor Jones for New York’s Empire State Music Festival in 1956. The following year, the CBC televised a performance of the ballet for Canadian viewers.
  18. While a student at Fordham University in 1978, a young Denzel Washington made his acting debut playing Brutus Jones in a college production of The Emperor Jones.
  19. The Emperor Jones has been produced sporadically by professional companies since its 1920 premiere. Starring British actor Obi Abili, the most recent professional production was by the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York, March 1 – April 23, 2017.

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