Charles Sidney Gilpin
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Charles Sidney Gilpin (November 20, 1878 – May 6, 1930) became one of the most highly regarded actors of the 1920s. He played in critical debuts in New York: in the 1919 premier of John Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln and played the lead role of Brutus Jones in the 1920 premier of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, also touring with the play. In 1920 he was the first black American to receive the Drama League of New York's annual award, as one of the ten people who had done the most that year for American theater.
Early life and education
Gilpin was born in Richmond, Virginia to Peter Gilpin and Caroline White and attended St. Francis RC School in the city. He started work as an apprentice in the Richmond Planet print shop before finding his career in theater. He first performed on stage as a singer at the age of twelve. Gilpin worked as a teacher in 1920.
In 1896 at age 18, Gilpin joined a minstrel show, leaving Richmond and beginning a life on the road that lasted for many years. When between performances on stage, like many performers he worked odd jobs to earn money: as a printer, barber, boxing trainer, and railroad porter. In 1903, Gilpin joined Hamilton, Ontario's Canadian Jubilee Singers.
In 1905 he started performing with traveling musical troupes of the Red Cross and the Candy Shop of America. He also played his first dramatic roles and honed his character acting in Chicago. He performed with Robert Mott’s Pekin Theater in Chicago for four years until 1911. Soon after, he toured the United States with the Pan-American Octetts. Gilpin worked with Rogers and Creamer’s Old Man’s Boy Company in New York. In 1915, Gilpin joined the Anita Bush Players as it moved from the Lincoln Theater in Harlem to the Lafayette Theater. As New York theater was expanding, this was a time when the theatrical careers of many famous black actors were launched.
In 1916, Gilpin made a memorable appearance in whiteface as Jacob McCloskey, a slave owner and villain of Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon. Though he left Bush’s Company over a salary dispute, his reputation there allowed him to get the role of Rev. William Curtis in the 1919 premier of John Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln.
Gilpin's Broadway debut gained him casting in the premier of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. He played the lead role of Brutus Jones to great critical acclaim, including an O'Neill-lauded review by writer Hubert Harrison in Negro World. Gilpin's achievement resulted in the Drama League of New York's naming him as one of the ten people in 1920 who had done the most for American theater. He was the first Black American so honored. Following the Drama League’s refusal to rescind the invitation, Gilpin refused to decline it. When the League invited Gilpin to their presentation dinner, some people found it controversial. At the dinner, he was given a standing ovation of unusual length when he accepted his award. Although Gilpin continued to perform the role of Brutus Jones in the U.S. tour that followed the Broadway closing of the play, he had a falling out with O'Neill. Gilpin wanted O'Neill to remove the word "nigger", which occurred frequently in the play. The playwright felt its use was consistent with his dramatic intentions.
In 1921 Gilpin was awarded the NAACPs Spingarn Medal. He was also honored at the White House by president Warren G. Harding. A year later, the Dumas Dramatic Club (now the Karamu Players) of Cleveland renamed itself the Gilpin Players in his honor.
After the extended controversy and the disappointment of losing his signature role, Gilpin started drinking heavily. He never again performed on Broadway. He died in 1930 in Eldridge Park, New Jersey, his career in shambles. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, his funeral arranged by friends shortly after his death.
- Who Was Who in the Theatre: 1912-1976 vol.2 D-H p.942; originally published annually by John Parker, 1976 edition compiled by Gale Research Co. from Parker's older editions
- "Drama League Votes to Honor Gilpin; 'Emperor Jones' Star Is Included Among Those to Be Guests at Annual Dinner". New York Times. 1921-02-21. Retrieved 2011-12-08.; cf. Gilpin May Not Be Drama League's Guest; Negro Star Has Other Invitations for Night of Dinner--Does Not Want to Socialize.
- "News and Gossip of the Street Called Broadway". New York Times. 1921-03-06. Retrieved 2011-12-08.; cf. Gilpin, Negro Actor, Not Barred as Guest; Drama League Is Still Balloting on Ten Notable Figures for Dinner., Charples Gilpin Comments.; Striving to Present His Art Rather Than Himself to Public, Negro Says.
- "Drama League Offers Tribute to Black Theatrical Star". Prescott Evening Courier. 1921-05-07. p. 1. Retrieved 2011-12-08.; cf. Insist Drama League Honor Negro Actor; Story That Charles Gilpin Was Not to Be Among the Honored Guests Brings Protests.
- "Gilpin Gets Ovation.; Forced Twice to Respond to Plaudits of Drama League Diners". New York Times. 1921-03-07. Retrieved 2011-12-08.; cf. Gilpin Proves Hero of Drama League Dinner
- "Spingarn Medal to Charles Gilpin". New York Times. 1921-06-22. Retrieved 2011-12-08.
- Henry T. Sampson The Ghost Walks: A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business 1865-1910, (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1988), p. 321.
- "Charles Sidney Gilpin", Dictionary of American Biography, American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.
- John T. Kneebone, "'It Wasn't All Velvet': The Life and Hard Times of Charles S. Gilpin, Actor", Virginia Cavalcade, 38 (summer 1988): 14-27.
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