Charles Gilpin, early actor did the most for American theater


Charles Gilpin
Date: 
Wed, 1878-11-20

Charles Gilpin was born on this date in 1878. He was an African American actor and singer.

Born in Richmond, VA, Charles Sidney Gilpin worked as an apprentice in the Richmond Planet print shop before finding his career in theater and becoming one of the most highly regarded actors of the 1920s. He first came on stage as a singer at the age of 12. In 1896, Gilpin joined a minstrel show, leaving Richmond and beginning a life on the road for many years.

When not on stage in theaters, restaurants, and fairs he worked odd jobs as a printer, barber, boxing trainer, and railroad porter. In 1903, Gilpin joined Hamilton Ontario’s Canadian Jubilee Singers.

Two years later he performed with the Abyssinia Company and the Original Smart Set, two traveling musical troupes. He also played his first dramatic roles and honed his character acting while he appeared 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 and spent some time 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, a time when many famous black theatrical careers were launched.

In 1916, he made a memorable appearance in whiteface as Jacob McCloskey, a slave owner and villain of Don Bouciault’s "The Octoroon." Though he left Bush’s Company over salary, his reputation while 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 moved him next into Eugene O’Neill’s "Emperor Jones" in 1920, a role he played to great critical acclaim. His work with this production allowed the Drama League of New York to name Gilpin as one of the 10 people who had done the most for American theater in 1920, the first Black American so honored.

His invitation to the league’s presentation dinner, however, created a public controversy that ended with his attendance. Following the Drama League’s refusal to rescind the invitation and Gilpin’s refusal to decline it, he was given a standing ovation of unusual length on accepting the award. A 1921 Spingarn recipient from the NAACP, Gilpin was also honored in the White House of 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. Charles Gilpin died in 1929 in Eldridge Park, N.J.

Reference:
The Ghost Walks:
A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business 1865-1910
Henry T. Sampson
Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, NJ., 1988), p.321

To become an Actor or Actress

Person / name: 

Gilpin, Charles Sidney