December 26, 2009

New Respect for "The Emperor Jones"

The Emperor Jones has long posed a dilemma for me. On the one hand, the 1920 drama is written in stereotypical Negro dialect, makes liberal use of the N-word and portrays its protagonist, a black murder named Brutus Jones who finds refuge on a Caribbean island, as an exploiter of other black people.  On the other hand, it’s written by Eugene O’Neill, introduced expressionism into the American theater with a work that stares hard in the face at the legacy of slavery and provided the first opportunity for a black actor to play the lead role in an integrated cast. 

In the past, the minuses won out and I avoided seeing the play, including the now-legendary Wooster Group production in which the white actress Kate Valk played the lead in black face.  But the notices for the recent revival at The Irish Repertory Theatre were so glowing that I overcame my reluctance and tried to buy a ticket.  By that time, though, they were all sold out.  So I wasted no time in getting tickets when I heard that the production was coming back for a five-week run, which ends Jan. 31, at the Soho Playhouse and my husband K and I went to see the show last week.

K had his own mixed feelings about seeing The Emperor Jones.  His first job out of music school had been a six month-tour through Europe in which a revue choreographed by Donald McKayle alternated in repertory with a production of The Emperor Jones, starring a young James Earl Jones just a year before his grand breakthrough in The Great White Hope.  K hadn’t seen the show since then but, no surprise, he thought James Earl Jones was unsurpassable.

The success of The Emperor Jones has always rested on the shoulders of the actor playing Brutus Jones. Charles S. Gilpin was the first to play the part and was so impressive that he became the first African-American to win a Drama League Award (although League officials refused to invite him to the Awards dinner until O’Neill organized a potential boycott of the event).  But Gilpin and O’Neill clashed over the play’s repeated use of the N-word: Gilpin kept trying to substitute less-offensive epithets, while O’Neill, as most any playwright would, fumed at the assault on his words.  When the play was invited to tour Europe, O’Neill insisted that Gilpin be dropped.  The replacement was a guy named Paul Robeson.

John Douglas Thompson, who plays the role in the current revival, may not yet be in that august league but most of the praise for this Emperor Jones has centered on his performance and he drew similar hosannas for his Othello earlier this year
(click here to read a New York Magazine paean to him). Thompson posses an imposing physique, a deep baritone, a commanding presence, and intense focus. K and I were impressed too.  We were also taken with CiarĂ¡n O’Reilly’s stylized direction, which included the use of puppets and masks to create the spirits that Jones imagines are haunting him as he flees through the jungle after his oppressed native subjects revolt.

The budget was clearly tight but the entire production team—set designer Charlie Corcoran, costume designer Antonia Ford-Roberts, puppet and mask designer Bob Flanagan, lighting designer Brian Nason and sound designers Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson—stepped up and created a mood that was appropriately unsettling as Jones descends from unbridled arrogance into quivering madness.  In the process, they,
O’Reilly and especially Thompson have rendered a version of the play that has finally resolved my dilemma and makes it easy for me to say, you should see this.

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