Who owns the character — the actor or the playwright? Adrienne Earle Pender’s world premiere of N, now playing at Raleigh, NC’s Theatre in the Park, asks that very question. The play looks at the relationship between playwright Eugene O’Neill and actor Charles Sidney Gilpin in 1920, as they mount O’Neill’s first box office hit, The Emperor Jones.
From rehearsal to Broadway run and, eventually, to the tour — the duo fights over the inclusion of a single word. More importantly, Pender’s N captures more clearly than any other theatrical production that I have ever seen how white privilege works. To Eugene O’Neill, a word is just a word. Using the N-word is a tool for impact and to strengthen his art. For Charles Gilpin, who becomes the first black man to be honored by the Drama League of New York as a result of that play, those six letters have the power to unravel everything that he has ever worked for.
The blocking makes it even clearer, with Eugene O’Neill, played by Ira David Wood IV, being the only character to noticeably exit the playing space. Although Wood can leave the stage, Florence and Charles Gilpin (played by Hazel S. Edmond and Byron Jennings II, respectively) remain onstage in their home and are always being watched.
Hope Alexander’s directorial work doesn’t stop there — there is something very audience-aware to all of the blocking that probably serves as an homage to the source material. Like the mixed expressionism and realism of The Emperor Jones, N pushes interactions out of the ordinary and into performance. I noticed it first when Jennings’ Charles was telling Edmond’s Florence how he landed the role, not by looking at her, but bathed in jarring light and delivering his lines to the audience. Although I loved how stylistically different N was, there were several moments in the play that I wanted the characters to have more of a connection. In particular, I felt like there was something lacking between Charles and Florence Gilpin.
Byron Jenning’s work as Gilpin was immensely satisfying to watch. Between seeing his relationship with O’Neill build and fracture to the struggle to say the lines of The Emperor Jones that he was trying so desperately to make sound right, he brought the talented and flawed Charles Gilpin to life.
Ira Wood’s Eugene O’Neill was unlikable in the best kind of way. There’s something about arguing for art and wanting to make this thing you love what you want it to be that can turn you into someone whom no one wants to be around. Not that there was no sympathy for O’Neill or disgust for Charles Gilpin’s progressing alcoholism, but nuances were very well crafted.
These two characters, as complicated and dark as they were, made a relationship you couldn’t look away from. Together, Wood and Jennings, arguing art vs. real-life impact, writing the character vs. creating the character, honoring the writing vs. honoring the message — their scenes were electrifying and a testament to the powerful actors that played them.
Hazel Edmond brought her own power to the production, from trying to help get Gilpin back to earth and back to work to her constant presence onstage. I just wish that there was more for Florence’s role was more than to bear witness to the relationship between O’Neill and her husband. Despite that, there was something powerful about seeing her watch the whole relationship unfold from her kitchen table.
Beyond the acting, the lights, set, and sound design told the story even further. In particular, the production designer Thomas Mauney’s work on the lights helped bridge the gap between realism and expressionism perfectly. Switching from natural light and window gobos to vibrant hues of red, green, and blue, we’re able to travel from Harlem, to rehearsal, to onstage without a single set change.
The set, having the Gilpin’s apartment, the theater stage, and O’Neill’s office all intersecting together, almost like the “N” of the play’s namesake, was very powerful. Jeffrey Nugent and Mauney’s work on this set created the perfect unreal and real atmosphere the play needed, full of the earthy browns necessary to ground it.
Adrienne Earle Pender’s N is definitely a play that we’ll keep hearing about. Although Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones certainly didn’t tour every state, I hope that this play does. It is a powerful look not only at race, but at the act of creating theater. Clocking in at about an hour, it’s a tight and electric production that is absolutely a must see.
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 14th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article132705414.html; and Feb. 8th Durham, NC Indy Week preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/meet-the-african-american-actor-who-said-no-to-eugene-oneill-and-paid-the-price/Content?oid=5105658. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Feb. 13th Triangle Review review by Nicole Noel, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/02/art-ego-and-the-weight-of-a-word-n-is-an-important-play-at-a-pivotal-time/.)
Theatre in the Park presents N, a world premiere by Adrienne Earle Pender at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16-18, 3 p.m. Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 24 and 25, and 3 p.m. Feb. 26 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $24 ($18 students, seniors 60+, and active-duty military personnel), except $16 per ticket for groups of 10 or more.
BOX OFFICE: 919-831-6058 or https://theatreinthepark.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0S41000000Qy44EAC.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-831-6058 or http://theatreinthepark.com/whatson/group-sales.
NOTE: All shows are wheelchair/walker accessible, and large-print playbills are usually available.
Adrienne Earle Pender (playwright): https://www.facebook.com/adrienne.e.pender (Facebook page).
Hope Alexander (director): http://www.thecoachhopesite.com/ (official website).
Katy Koop is a writer, comedic actor, and stage manager based in Cary, NC. As a freelance writer, her work has been published by Later, Femsplain, and Hello Giggles. When she’s not writing or involved in a local production, she’s tweeting under the handle @katykooped. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.