The man who would be hailed as the first "serious" African-American
actor got his start on the vaudeville and minstrel circuits. The breadth
and depth of Charles Gilpin's acting ability emerged around 1907,
when he joined the nation's first legitimate black theater company,
the Pekin Stock Company in Chicago. Gilpin refined his craft as a
founding member of the first stock company in Harlem, the Anita Bush
Players (later renamed the Lafayette Players).
In 1919, Gilpin made his Broadway debut playing the role of the preacher
and former slave Custis in John Drinkwater's Abraham Lincoln.
Though his performance garnered accolades, Gilpin did not create a
true sensation until he took the title role in Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer
Prize-winning one-act play, The Emperor Jones. Debuting in
1920 at the Provincetown Theatre in Greenwich Village, the play was
one of the first white-authored works to feature an African-American
actor in the lead role. The following year, the Drama League voted
Gilpin one of 10 people who had contributed most to American theater.
The Emperor Jones enjoyed a revival in Europe, where a young
Paul Robeson replaced Gilpin as the lead. Some observers contend that
O'Neill elbowed Gilpin aside because the actor would not utter certain
racial epithets written into the dialogue.
Afflicted with alcoholism, Gilpin underwent a steep decline in later
years. His career foundered with the loss of his voice in 1929. Gilpin
died the next year, on May 6, 1930, at the age of 51.