Charles Sidney Gilpin
Charles Sidney Gilpin was a break-through stage actor – one of the first African American performers to transcend the racial barriers of the early 20th century. But his career is a gripping reminder of the dual threats of racial prejudice and economic hardship.
Farrar: Commentator Brooks Smith has been rediscovering Richmond’s performing arts history, and today, Brooks, you are here to talk about an early Richmond entertainer whose name is well known as the name of a neighborhood in the city, but many people, including, I confess, myself, don’t really know who Gilpin was.
Smith: That’s right. Charles Sidney Gilpin was born in 1878 in the city’s Jackson Ward neighborhood; he was the youngest of 14 children. He grew up on St. Peter’s Street, which is right behind what is now Theatre IV on Broad St. He attended school until the age of 12, then became a printer’s apprentice, what they used to call a printer’s devil, at the Richmond Planet, which was Richmond’s most famous black newspaper. And I think his first stage appearance probably occurred around this same time. He drew from many influences on his life around the city, including churches, the jail and tobacco factories, where all kinds of music flowed through his ears.
Farrar: And Charles Gilpin went on to become a popular entertainer on the vaudeville and minstrel circuits back in the early 1900’s.
Smith: That’s right. He moved from Richmond to Philadelphia and then to New York City, and he ran what was then the vaudeville and minstrel circuit. He described it as the “ragged edge of show business.” It wasn’t the top of the top but he was certainly on the rise. He played for a time with the Great Southern Minstrel Barn Storming Aggregation and after that with a group called the Canadian Jubilee Singers. What’s interesting to me, and I’ll pause on two themes that seemed to continue through Gilpin’s life. Two obstacles, really, the first racial and the second financial. The issue of racial prejudice seemed to always lurk in Gilpin’s background and he reflected later in life that his time with the Canadian Jubilee Singers was his happiest experience, because the audiences up in Canada didn’t expect a type-cast black actor-performances, they just expected a good performance.
And I mentioned the financial hurdles. To make ends meet during and between his different stage runs over time, he worked all manner of odd jobs: elevator operator, barber, porter, he even was a trainer for prize fighters for a time.
Farrar: And he went on to star on Broadway in a play by Eugene O’Neill.
Smith: He did. His run to stardom began when he helped to form a group called the Lafayette Players in Harlem in 1915. A few years later, he was introduced to Broadway. His first performance was in 1919; it was sufficiently distinguishing of his acting abilities that Emperor Jones, Eugene Oneill’s cast, came looking for him and found him in an elevator in Harlem and asked him to play this lead role in the great playwright’s play, the Emperor Jones, in 1920. And it was by all accounts a breakthrough moment in time. The critics in newspapers after the first performance hailed him, Gilpin, that is, as the most brilliant performer that they had seen any place that year, a performance of “historic stature,” said one, “a sustained and stunning piece of acting, “ said another. And perhaps the most important was the concept that his performance, Gilpin’s performance in the Emperor Jones, transcended both race and country. It really defined him as one of the first black actors to receive acclaim on the main stage. And also one of the first black stars on the American stage.
Farrar: Despite that success and acclaim, it was, of course, the era of segregation, discrimination, the Jim Crow era, not only in the South but the North. And he came back to Richmond. Tell us about that.
Smith: Well, the original play was only slated for a two-week run. It ended up going for four years, it was so popular. About a year into it, after 200 performances up in New York City, they took Emperor Jones on the road, came back to Richmond for a three-day stint after Christmas in 1921. Played at the Academy of Music, which I believe was off of Broad or near Broad. And it was an important moment in our city from a racial perspective. I consider it to be one of the first chinks in the wall of prejudice because for that run of performances the Academy modified its segregated seating so you didn’t have to sit in a roped-off section, but you could essentially sit anywhere, including the box seats. And that was critical at that time in Richmond history because famous local people like Maggie Walker and John Mitchell, Jr., were there to see the performances but otherwise might have boycotted them.
Farrar: And yet, at the end of his life, he was working as an elevator operator.
Smith: Yes, sadly, Gilpin was never able to sustain that peak moment in his career. Toward the end of his life, and he died quite early at the age of 51, he lost his voice, which pretty much took him off the stage and he was forced to return to being an elevator operator. Interestingly, some of the most important recognition for his career came after his death. In 1941 Eugene O’Neill credited Gilpin as the only actor who was ever able to convey the notion of the character that the playwright had in mind. Which I believe was the greatest acclaim that O’Neill gave to anyone. And, as you mentioned at the beginning of the show, that same year, Richmond’s first “high standard, low rent” housing project, known as Gilpin Court, was opened to the public.
Farrar: And named for this famous son of Richmond.
Smith: That’s right, in his honor.
Farrar: Brooks, thanks very much for telling us about this now perhaps little-known figure in the history of Richmond’s performing arts.
Smith: You bet. It’s just a hint of the tragic but vitally important life and times of Charles Gilpin.