Kevin E. Thorne II, Jared H. Graham in Adrienne Earle Pender’s N at Keegan Theatre; Credit: Cameron Whitman Photography

As playwright Adrienne Earle Pender’s N opens, Florence Howard (Lolita Marie) has just put her baby to bed when her smartly dressed husband Charles Sidney Gilpin (Kevin E. Thorne II) bursts into their Harlem apartment, announcing that he’s been cast in Eugene O’Neill’s new play. It is 1920 and O’Neill (Jared H. Graham) has just been awarded the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes. Gilpin has been an admired actor in the Black theater, but the play is The Emperor Jones; the role is that of the lead, Emperor Brutus Jones himself, to be performed at the Provincetown Playhouse for a mostly White audience. 

Though Gilpin made his Broadway debut the year before as a supporting actor in John Drinkwater‘s Abraham Lincoln, White actors in blackface were still the norm on the Great White Way—indeed one White actor, Charles Ellis, wanted to play the role in blackface. But, despite Gilpin’s concerns about how a White author like O’Neill writes Black dialect, including stereotypical “dem”s and “dere”s, and the frequency with which Brutus utters racial slurs, the opportunity to star in a play by a critically acclaimed dramatist was too good to refuse (and the pay wasn’t bad either).

The Emperor Jones is about a Black American and former Pullman porter who travels to the Caribbean and, taking advantage of local superstitions, sets himself up as an unnamed island’s despot. O’Neill’s play dramatizes the final hours of his rule when he is driven into the jungle—and madness—by the rebels’ drumming.

Jones was O’Neill’s first commercial success, and it made Gilpin a star. After a transfer to Broadway, Gilpin headlined a two-year national tour, and received many honors, including an audience with then-President Warren G. Harding. Far from O’Neill’s ears, Gilpin would alter the dialogue, replacing the N-word with what was then the more respectable, “negro.” Once he returned to New York, O’Neill replaced the actor with the younger and more politically savvy Paul Robeson, who would go on to act in several O’Neill plays and take on the role of Jones again in the 1933 film adaptation, the first film with a Black lead to become a hit with White audiences.

In N, though our sympathies align with Gilpin, Pender has crafted a layered and nuanced double portrait of both men. The power imbalance of race and money is always present, but both Gilpin and O’Neill are artists dedicated to their craft, both believers in the social value of their art, both are convinced that they know best, and both are high-functioning alcoholics. 

Whether then or now, whether named O’Neill or Pender, playwrights own their plays, making their money by leasing out the use of their scripts; sometimes in dread that producers, directors, and actors will take liberties with their play when the author is not in the room. Pender renders an O’Neill who is progressive for his time: Just as Gilpin sees his role as blazing a trail for Black actors having a wider range of dramatic roles in an integrated theater, O’Neill envisions an American theater that will include Black dramatists writing about Black culture. (Langston HughesMulatto premiered on Broadway in 1935, five years after Gilpin’s death.) Pender’s O’Neill, if he is a villain, it is because his privilege allows him to remain ignorant of the harm caused by insisting that artistic integrity depends on a slur being uttered more than thirty times a performance.

Thorne and Graham share an onstage chemistry that lays bare the complexity of emotions that binds Gilpin and O’Neill and also fuels their clash: Their mutual respect and admiration for each other’s artistry feeds into their mutual neediness for respect and admiration. The two actors manage to portray the vulnerability that even men whose trade is in affectation can have when they admire one another. Director Nadia Guevara plays up these parallels several times—most notably in one scene transition in which the two men move across the stage as unwitting mirror images as if joined together on subatomic level.

Matthew J. Keenan’s set with the Gilpin home on stage right, O’Neill’s office stage left , and The Emperor Jones’ jungle set at center stage is quite an accomplishment,  the locations simultaneously distinct yet bleeding together. Lighting designer Venus Gulbranson achieves a certain magic, at times imbuing the muslin jungle with an illusory depth, other times flattening them out to draw attention to the artifice. Crescent Haynes’ sound design makes one feel like their head is in the drums that drive Brutus Jones mad. Costume designer Paris Francesca recreates the original imperial uniform Gilpan wore a century ago, and in later scenes when the Gilpans finally have money, dresses Florence in a gorgeous blue velvet coat.

If there is one fault in Pender’s fascinating historical drama, it is the most obvious deviation from the historical record. Gilpin married three times; Florence Howard was his first wife and they were no longer together when Jones opened, but Pender chose to end the play with an epilogue in which the protagonist’s wife of 33 years recounts his career. This choice restricts Florence to the familiar archetype of the practical yet supportive wife of the great artist, as opposed to the more vividly sketched male characters. Sometimes, reading between the lines of the messiness of real people’s biographies can inspire less predictable narrative resolutions.

N runs to Nov. 20 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. $50–$60. keegantheatre.com.