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.
In N, … 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.
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 Gilpin wore a century ago, and in later scenes when the Gilpins finally have money, dresses Florence in a gorgeous blue velvet coat.