Moses Gunn

The widely acclaimed actor Moses Gunn enjoyed a thriving career that encompassed stage, film, and TV. An original member of the Negro Ensemble Company, Gunn won a 1968 Obie award for his work with that company and, later, a 1975 Obie for his performance in the NEC’s production of The First Breeze of Summer by Leslie Lee. Gunn also gained distinction as a Shakespearean actor. His 1967 portrayal of Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus for the New York Shakespeare Festival was called “immense” by then New York Times critic Dan Sullivan, who wrote that Gunn found “the exhilaration of evil-feasting-on-itself. In addition, he gives us a human father determined that his infant son will not die because his color—black—happens to be a scandal.” In 1970, Gunn starred in the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre production of Othello directed by Michael Kahn. Walter Kerr’s New York Times review of that production, titled “Mr. Gunn, Joyously in Love with Shakespeare,” had high praise for Gunn, calling him “a virtuoso.” Gunn’s film roles ranged from the gangster Bumpy Jonas in Shaft to the African-American leader Booker T. Washington in Ragtime. On TV, where he appeared frequently, he assayed serious drama, notably in Roots, and showed his comic chops in The Jeffersons and Good Times.


The American Shakespeare Festival’s Othello in New York City.

Gunn and his family moved in 1970 from a fifth-floor walkup on the Lower East Side to Westbeth, where they lived for some years before relocating to Connecticut. His wife Gwen Gunn was a member of the Westbeth Playwrights Feminist Collective. “It was wonderful for me to be able to have a group of people I could work with and write with,” Gwen says. “For me, the communal aspect of Westbeth was probably more helpful than it was for Moses. When we first moved to Westbeth, he got the role in Othello. In fact, he had it while I was birthing, and he had to run back from rehearsal in Stratford to be there when the baby was born. Then I carried the little baby Justin—he was maybe ten days old—to opening night. He slept through it. … Moses was always happier working. Home two weeks, he’d get nervous. That’s the way actors are. But he had a wonderful career.”1

1. Gwen Gunn, interview with Terry Stoller, New York City, March 31, 2017.

Moses Gunn’s papers are held by the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the
University of Kansas.

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