Black Emperor of Broadway
Director: Arthur Egeli
United States, 2019, 95 min
Cast:Shaun Parkes, John Carter Hensley, Nick Moran, Liza Weil, Lonnie Farmer
Crew:Writers: Ian Bowater, Adrienne Earle Pender. Producers: Arthur Egeli, Heather Egeli, Judith Richland.
By the time Charles Gilpin encountered Eugene O'Neill, he'd had a twenty-year career in Black Theatre. Starting out in Minstrel Shows and as a Jubilee Singer, he graduated to work with African American Vaudeville stars like Bert Williams. His goal was to be a serious actor and he found his opportunity with Anita Bush's La Fayette Players, an established Harlem Company doing plays from the classic repertoire. Eventually this led to his first Broadway appearance in "Abraham Lincoln" by John Drinkwater. That's where O'Neill discovered the man to play The Emperor Jones in his latest creation. Known for breaking the rules of conventional theatre, O'Neill cast a Black actor in a lead role. Then the clash of personalities intervened. Gilpin thought he was in a collaborative process where the text was negotiable. O'Neill was a stickler for the actors speaking his words exactly. The tension exploded over the use of the "N-Word". Gilpin objected to the liberal use of the racial slur in the play. "We don't use that word with one another". O'Neill thought differently. Despite the huge success of the play and a big national tour with over three hundred performances, neither man would back down. Gilpin was fired and Paul Robeson was hired to play the role in London. Gilpin was a broken man. He drifted from job to job as actors do until O'Neill approached him again to revive "The Emperor Jones". Both men needed the money. But Gilpin did it on the understanding that he could take the show to Broadway and direct himself. It was again a huge success. Despite playing Brutus Jones over 600 times Charles S. Glipin remains a forgotten figure in the history of modern American Theatre.
About the director
During a 25 year collaboration, Director Arthur and Screenwriter Ian Bowater have created their Provincetown Trilogy, three films set in the picturesque, Bohemian community of Provincetown, Cape Cod. They were working on the possible third element about Eugene O'Neill's early theatrical career with the legendary Provincetown Players. Then they discovered the Charles Gilpn story through Adrienne Earle Pender's stage play "N" at a small theatre in Raleigh North Carolina. As soon as Arthur Egeli read the script, he commissioned it for his next Provincetown film. Despite being a period drama and working in the small independent film genre they made it happen. Actors wanted to tell this story.
A friend called me from Raleigh, North Carolina and told me he had just seen a fantastic play at Theater in the Park. It was about Eugene O'Neill and perhaps someone up here in Provincetown, where O'Neill had gotten his start, might want to produce it there? When I read it, I knew it was special. I called the writer, Adrienne Pender, who was directly related to the subject of the play, Charles Gilpin. Gilpin had really broken all barriers to black actors in 1921. It was one of the stories that just had to be told, that should be told, and had been buried all these years.