Gilpin, Charles Sidney

Gilpin, Charles Sidney

(1878–1930) stage actor; born in Richmond, Va. Introduced as a boy to amateur theatricals, he left school at age 14 to become a vagabond vaudevillian, although he often had to support himself with odd jobs. In 1907 he joined the all-black Pekin Stock Company of Chicago and later acted at theaters in Harlem; for several years he managed the all-black Lafayette stock company in Harlem. His performance of the slave Custis in the Broadway production of John Drinkwater's Abraham Lincoln (1919) led to the title role in the first production of O'Neill's Emperor Jones (1920)—effectively the first starring role by an African-American in mainstream American theater. Unable to cope with the sudden fame and racial prejudice he then confronted, he began to drink and cut off his career.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.