Famous & Forgotten

N: A World Premiere

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.”

Alexandra Drosu
Alexandra Drosu

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