DC Metro Theater Arts Review: N

N by Adrienne Earle Pender. Photo: Cameron Whitman Photography
‘N’ at Keegan sheds light on a forgotten history of racism in theater
A compelling play based on the fascinating connection between renowned white playwright Eugene O'Neill and stellar Black actor Charles Gilpin.

In this regional premiere, N represents a word so reprehensible it can’t be uttered without emotional repercussions. This compelling piece excavates segments of theater history that have been long forgotten, tossed to the wayside, and ignored. Playwright Adrienne Earle Pender sheds light on the fascinating connection between renowned playwright Eugene O’Neill and a stellar Black actor, Charles Gilpin, who brought O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones to prominence.

Kevin E. Thorne II portrays Gilpin with a quiet, stalking fierceness. He exudes Gilpin’s love for theater while stuck in menial jobs and occasional minstrel shows to make ends meet. When Gilpin gets a chance to perform in the new work of a relatively unknown playwright, Eugene O’Neill, his excitement is palpable. As Gilpin, Thorne takes on an erect bearing in his frayed military uniform (nice costuming by Paris Francesca) and listens attentively to drumbeats that speak to him as Brutus, a role he defined in The Emperor Jones. Over time, though, the degradation of having to say the “N-word” throughout the script dampens the excitement of being in the show, and Gilpin is compelled to take a stand.

Although Lolita Marie as wife Florence is saddled with a rather one-dimensional supporting role, Marie brings her usual charm and resilience to her character and shines. As Florence, she is her husband’s number one fan, supporting him with rock-steady devotion. Florence is the voice of “reason,” pleading for Gilpin to accept what he’s offered, no matter the indignities — she’s borne the brunt of racial nastiness herself and demonstrates the willpower to “keep on keeping on.”

Finally, Jared H. Graham handles the daunting role of the serious brooding Eugene O’Neill, with aplomb (liquor always at the ready of course). O’Neill obviously wants to do the right thing and faced considerable backlash for even writing such a piece, but he is determined to present the language in line with his own vision. The dialogue between the two artists is dynamic and charged. Director Nadia Guevara has a heightened awareness of the play’s intense underlying sentiments and brings a choreographer’s sensibility to the characters’ movements, entrances, and exits.

The beautiful set designed by Matthew J. Keenan is a work of art where huge tropical trees line the backstage and resplendent green leaves and lush foliage fill a forest, beautifully lit by lighting designer Venus Gulbranson. Sound designer Cresent Haynes worked overtime with the drums and “tom-toms” that sounded and felt like the percussionists were directly off stage. The rhythms fit beautifully in expressing the action onstage, reflecting The Emperor Jones play within a play, and Gilpin’s feelings of resentment for being unheard and disregarded for standing by his integrity and choices.

Some names resonate through history and situate themselves in the lexicon of cultural legacy. But as this play beautifully reflects, there are countless others whose names and deeds have been lost through history. N had me rushing to Google Charles Gilpin with newfound appreciative awareness.

N is a wonderful choice to celebrate Keegan’s 25th Silver Anniversary as it reflects the company’s commitment to “explore the human condition and foster connections and positive change.” Their plans for ongoing discussions pertaining to the show are also a welcome path to connection, something we need now more than ever.