Charles Sidney Gilpin

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Charles Sidney Gilpin

Charles Sidney Gilpin (November 20, 1878 – May 6, 1930) was one of the most highly regarded stage actors of the 1920s. He played in critical debuts in New York City: the 1919 premier of John Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln and 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 10 people who had done the most that year for American theater.

Early life and education[edit]

Gilpin was born in Richmond, Virginia, to Peter Gilpin and Caroline White, and he attended St. Francis RC School in the city.[1] 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 12. Gilpin worked as a teacher in 1920.


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. 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, he 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 Theatre. 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 Gilpin left 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.

Gilpin's Broadway debut led to his being cast in the premier of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. He played the lead role of Brutus Jones to great critical acclaim, including a 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 10 people in 1920 who had done the most for American theater.[2] He was the first black American so honored. Following the Drama League’s refusal to rescind the invitation, Gilpin refused to decline it.[3] When the League invited Gilpin to their presentation dinner, some people found it controversial.[4] At the dinner, he was given a standing ovation of unusual length when he accepted his award.[5] 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 refused, asserting its use was consistent with his dramatic intentions.

In 1921, Gilpin was awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal.[6] 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.

When they could not come to a reconciliation, O'Neill replaced Gilpin with Paul Robeson as Brutus Jones in the London production.

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.

In 1991, 61 years after his death, Gilpin was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.[7]



  • 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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