Adrienne Earle Pender’s new play N, playing Feb. 10-26 at Raleigh’s Theatre in the Park, is powerful treatise on art, ego, and how the weight of a single word can crush the human soul. N is the story of Charles Sidney Gilpin, one of the most acclaimed black actors of the 1920’s and his volatile relationship with the legendary playwright, Eugene O’Neill.
In the first scene, we see Gilpin announcing to his wife Florence, that he has been cast as the lead character, Brutus Jones, in Eugene O’Neill’s play, The Emperor Jones, which is about a former Pullman porter and murderer who escapes to an island in the West Indies and manipulates the inhabitants into making him their ruler.
N is a “play within a play,” and the downfall of the character Brutus Jones mimics the downfall of Charles Sidney Gilpin, whose relationship with O’Neill was destroyed in part by Gilpin’s refusal to utter the N-word, which was written 32 times in the one-act play.
Gilpin, who is the son of slaves, is initially full of hope and pride, even as he explains abashedly to his wife the problem with script, “There’s a lot of ‘dems’ and ‘duhs,’ — you know how white men think we talk.” Then he says almost casually as if he is almost too ashamed to admit it to his wife, “and it has ‘that’ word in it.”
Playwright Adrienne Pender feeds us this line like it is a small thing, a scratch of the throat, nothing to worry about, but then lets it fester throughout the entire play until it becomes a disease neither Gilpin nor we can recover from.
Byron Jennings II plays Gilpin with an aristocratic dignity, taking him from hopeful and proud in the opening scene, “I feel like the whole world will be different after this,” through vanity, arrogance, and finally humiliation and redemption.
Jennings has a deep, resonate voice; and when he goes from the elegance of that voice, to the slave-like dialect of the Brutus Jones character, the dissonance is jarring and thought-provoking. The very first time he says the N-word in the play, it feels like a slap across the face.
Every single instance of the word is uncomfortable to hear, and not just because this is, perhaps, the most reviled word in the English language, but because it makes you think of all the times that you’ve heard this word — and it did not make you feel as uncomfortable as it does watching what it costs Gilpin to say it.
Hazel S. Edmond plays Gilpin’s wife Florence, with grace and quiet wisdom. Florence is the practical voice of reason in this play. She, as a black woman and a mother, understands that pride is a luxury that many cannot afford; and so she goes to O’Neill to ask for another chance for her husband.
This scene gives us her husband’s backstory, but I would have liked to have seen how her husband’s fall had affected her and what their lives had become, because I did not feel their suffering as much as I should have by this point.
Ira David Wood IV’s portrayal of Eugene O’Neill is perfection. Everything from the very authentic accent, to the way you can sense O’Neill’s barely contained struggle with his own personal demons in the subtle tension in which he moves. Wood shows us a multifaceted character in O’Neill, who is, at times, progressive and heroic and then egotistical and tyrannical.
Director Hope Alexander divides the stage into three platforms: the Gilpin home, O’Neill’s office, and the theater. Alexander has created three sets, with the world of Charlie Gilpin and his wife on one end and the world of Eugene O’Neill on the other. They are joined by a center platform, which functions as the theater.
It is significant that O’Neill never appears on the Gilpin platform — that his world never intersects with the actor’s like the actor’s does with his. This symbolic separation is only bridged between the two men in the theater, and those moments when Ira Wood and Byron Jennings play opposite each other and see each other as equals are magic.
It would be nice to say that this play ended with success for Gilpin and understanding for O’Neill, but real life rarely ties itself up so nicely. The only victory Gilpin won, was one of indomitable spirit; but, perhaps, telling this very compelling story is its own victory.
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. 16th Triangle Review review by Katy Koop, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/02/adrienne-earle-penders-n-is-tight-and-electric-another-must-see-production-at-tip/.)
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): https://www.facebook.com/hopealexander65 (Facebook page).
Nicole Noel is a former U.S. Army journalist-turned-Technical Knowledge Manger, with a love for the arts. At age seven, she wrote her first story on the wall of her basement after being told the family might have to move: “There once was a girl named Nicole who had a dog named Rat and they lived in this house.” She liked the way that you could capture a moment in a sentence, and still does. These days Nicole lives with her daughter, and a dog named Buffy, in a house in Fuquay-Varina. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.