Playwright and Theatre in the Park board member Adrienne Earle Pender is debuting a new play this month. It’s called “N: A World Premiere” and it’s based on the true story of forgotten 1920s actor Charles Gilpin and his tempestuous relationship with playwright Eugene O’Neill. Gilpin, the first African-American actor to be celebrated on the stage, starred in O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones.” The groundbreaking play was O’Neill’s first commercial success and made Gilpin a star. Sadly, the actor’s success faded quickly. After an initial run, Gilpin asked O’Neill to remove the “N” word from the play; the author refused, setting in motion the demise of the actor’s career and life.
“Charles Gilpin is more than a hidden figure—he’s a forgotten figure in American theater. But he’s really as important as Jackie Robinson,” says Pender. “Before Charles (and after Charles, for a while), white actors played Negro characters in blackface. He really broke new ground.”
Pender, who was selected for the Eugene O’Neill Foundation’s Tao House Fellowship last year, has a personal connection to the story—she’s distantly related on her father’s side: “I didn’t grow up hearing the story, but heard about it around 1993 and just filed it away. I started playwriting in 2001, but only became ‘ready’ to tell this story recently.”
She hopes the play sparks a productive dialogue in the community about race and its role in our society. “I hope that seeing how much this word impacted one single person starts larger and necessary conversations.”