Review of the Drama “N” by Adrienne Earle Pender on Thursday, 22 February 2024 at Theater Drachengasse.

 Photos by Wolfgang Geissler and Wolfgang Menth-Chiari

By Wolfgang Geissler

Let me start with an intriguing story.

Once upon a time there was the Emperor Norton I, also known as Joshua Abraham Norton, who remains a legendary figure in the annals of San Francisco’s history. Despite lacking any royal lineage, Norton boldly declared himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico in 1859. While his titles were not officially recognised, his eccentric reign captured the hearts of San Franciscans, earning him widespread admiration.

Norton’s commanding presence and extravagant attire, dressed in intricate military regalia, fascinated the residents of San Francisco. He wandered the streets, issuing whimsical decrees on various matters, displaying a genuine concern for the welfare of his subjects, though sometimes impractical.

Despite his humble means, Norton lived a life of luxury, frequenting the most esteemed establishments and attending the theatre regularly. Merchants respected his self-issued currency, “Norton dollars,” as a tribute to his unofficial sovereignty.

When he died in 1880, Norton was mourned by many and fondly remembered as the beloved Emperor of the city. His legacy endures through literature, art, and popular culture, symbolizing San Francisco’s unique spirit and character.

While Emperor Norton and Brutus Jones, the protagonist of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones,” share unconventional personas with grandiose titles, their narratives diverge. Norton, an actual historical figure, proclaimed himself emperor, whereas Jones is a fictional character who seizes power on a Caribbean island.

Although Norton and Jones are distinct, it’s not impossible that O’Neill could have come across references to Emperor Norton I in historical records or anecdotes, especially given the enduring fascination with the eccentric emperor in San Francisco lore.

The “N” word, typically associated with “nigger” or its derivative “nigga,” carries profound significance due to its historical and contemporary context of racial oppression, discrimination, and violence against Black individuals. Stemming from centuries of slavery, colonialism, and systemic racism, its usage has evolved, yet it remains deeply offensive and laden with racial animosity. The word embodies a legacy of dehumanisation and serves as a poignant reminder of the ongoing struggle for racial equality and justice.

Adrienne Earle Pender’s “N” chronicles the conflict between playwright Eugene O’Neill and actor Charles Sidney Gilpin over the inclusion of the racial slur “N” word in O’Neill’s seminal box office hit, “The Emperor Jones,” in 1920. The play was adapted into a film titled “The Black Emperor of Broadway,” scheduled for release in 2020. O’Neill and Gilpin engage in a tumultuous battle from rehearsals to the Broadway production and, subsequently, to the London tour. While O’Neill perceives the word as mere language, Gilpin regards its inclusion as a menace to everything he has worked for, including his career and family. O’Neill’s groundbreaking play, “The Emperor Jones,” premiered in 1921, featuring Charles S. Gilpin as Emperor Brutus Jones. Gilpin’s performance was lauded as “revolutionary,” establishing him as the first Black actor to receive such acclaim on Broadway. Nevertheless, by 1926, O’Neill had attained legendary status while Gilpin faded into obscurity. The script of “N” delves into the intricate dynamics between Gilpin and O’Neill, spotlighting how their relationship ultimately hinged on a single word—a word that propelled one to the zenith of American theatre while erasing the other from history.

Adrienne Earle Pender, an African-American writer, began her career in 2001 with “The Rocker,” a finalist at Dayton Playhouse Future Fest 2002. Her repertoire grew with “Stone Face,” showcased at the National Black Theater Festival, and “Banana Split Lady” at the Great Plains Theatre Conference. “Somewhere In Between” received readings in NY (2010) and Houston, TX (2014), then premiered in Raleigh (2014). Her latest, “N,” about Charles S. Gilpin, was a finalist at Dayton Playhouse 2016. Pender was awarded a Tao House Fellowship in 2015 and holds an MFA from Wilkes University, being a member of the Dramatist Guild.

In “N” under Joanna Godwin Seidl’s direction, the actors deliver captivating performances, weaving a complex narrative with skill and depth. Randall Galera, originally from Brooklyn, New York and now residing in Vienna, masterfully portrays Charles Gilpin, while Peter Steele from West Sussex, England, brings Eugene O’Neill to life with finesse. Berlin-born American Actress Lynne Ann Williams shines as Florence Gilpin, adding layers of authenticity to the production. Together, they create a cohesive and thought-provoking theatrical experience that resonates with the audience long after the curtain falls. Under Joanna’s steady hand, “N” leaves a profound and lasting impression, highlighting the talent and dedication of its cast and director.

After several curtain calls amidst thundering applause, we all gathered in the foyer. There, we not only had the pleasure of meeting the actors but also indulged in the already legendary Café Ministerium catering, featuring delicious canapés and “oodles” of Hochriegl sekt.

As I reflect on these closing moments, one question continues to linger in my mind: Why did Eugene O’Neill insist on retaining the “N” word?