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“The Emperor Jones” by Eugene O’Neill

Reviewed by Glenda Frank

 

The Emperor Jones. The First Floor Theatre, La MaMa, ETC, 66 East Fourth St., New York, NY. Feb. 2-12, 2006.

The Emperor Jones. The Wooster Group, St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water St., DUMBO, Brooklyn, New York. March 1 - April 2, 2006.

Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones” is a rarely produced American masterpiece.  The tragedy is  rooted deep in American history, perhaps the first play to depict the  Middle Passage, the voyage of slaves from Africa to America.  The eight brief, expressionistic scene tell the  story of a charismatic Pullman porter with a shady past who has recreated himself as the dictator  of a Caribbean paradise. We follow him as he flees for his life during a native revolt. Brutus Jones  carries the burden of black oppression within him,  ghosts he can’t exorcise.  He is O’Neill’s Macbeth, a man of promise and valor who is  killed  by the silver bullets that represent  his greed and ambition. 

Unlike  “Anna Christie” or “Long Day’s Journey into Night,”  “The Emperor Jones”  is not an easily accessible play. Since inception there  have  been problems with its political correctness.  This season New York audiences have been treated to two radically different interpretations, neither of which resembles the opera by Louis Gruenberg or  the film version with  Paul Robeson as the Emperor. 

In the short-lived La MaMA production, staged in honor of Black History Month, director Arthur Adair took a minimalist  approach in which both dialogue and author’s descriptions were read.   La MaMa’s  First Floor Theatre resembles  a small Greek theatre with stadium seating.  Adair, who also did sets, lights, sound and costume design,  set up three dark-wood platforms (or enlarged columns) of varying dimensions and height, one center stage and spotlighted for Jones,   the others flanking  it   The floor space with its reflected lighting became an evocative  jungle where Jones tries to escape  from the natives and the persistent tom-tom. The actors are reduced to a cast of three.

Xander Gaines – a tall, muscular man with military posture   in a tour-de-force performance as Jones – enters in a dazzling white suit and steals the light.  Sheila Dabney, in a red bandanna as the old native woman, informs the drunken  Smithers (Brian P. Glover), Jones’s brutal cockney lieutenant, about the insurrection. Her role played, Dabney ascends the third platform and reads the stage directions aloud  while Jones and Smithers confront each other like boxers,  backing each other to the platform edge.  It is a sadistic choreography  with a real sense of danger and ultimately a demonstration of Jones’s  superior daring and power.

Adair’s clear vision of the play is evident from the first scene. When the Emperor ascends his steel throne, he is not quite tall enough for his white patent leather shoes to  touch the ground.  The deliberate fluctuations of his accent from Southern illiterate to regal and commanding indicate a psychological instability, a failure of the will to subvert everything in its path.

In  the jungle, the Emperor’s   fears take shape – first as vague but sinister  forms, which  are replaced by personal, then racial memories.  The scenes are pantomimes, with Jones transformed by his visions. After murdering his best friend in a game of dice, he must labor in a chain-gang. He limps in his invisible shackles and has about him the weariness of long manual labor.  When he lifts a shovel to bash in the guard’s head,  he panics to discover nothing in his hands and, shaking himself free of the hallucination,  reaches for his pistol to fire.   

As he moves through the jungle,  the cloak of civilization and his proud bearing drop away. One by one, he  discards  his garments   until he is almost naked. His looks grow wilder.  He pushes aside invisible branches and trees as he stumbles to escape.  The tom toms slow and intensify, persistent reminders of a hostile fate.   Unclothed we recognize his raw courage and the strength of his nightmares. We witness his appeal to power in the gunshots and his half-repentant prayers to God.  In this mesmerizing and  complex portrait, Gaines, inspired by the role,  enlarges and fills the imaginative center of the play.   

The most moving scene I have seen on stage in many seasons is Jones at the slave auction.  His face, raised to heaven,  reflects his  horror and disbelief.   He has been thrust back into  history,  transformed from king to property.   His mute appeal is as eloquent as his monologues.  The flat, direct lighting broadens Gaines’s  nose and deepens his eye sockets  until his face is an African mask. Unforgettable.  

Sheila Dabney plays the challenging role of narrator and one-woman chorus with a rare range and energy.  She becomes Jones’s dramatic foil, the vocal bridge that sets up and exits  scenes, the mood and tempo of the evening. She makes us  realize that we are in the old oral tradition of narrative.  In the La MaMa website notes, Arthur Adair remarked that faith in the audience and the evocative power of O'Neill's stage directions enabled him to rely, not on cheap spectacle, but on Dabney's powerful voice and acting to provide the play's visual imagery.

The Wooster Group offered their variation in March, Women’s History Month. The play, which is a reprise of their 1993 creation,  is more a framework for the considerable acting powers of Kate Valk and the theatrical imagination than for O’Neill, who might not recognize his vision.  Asian and African visuals are blended with technology, and what emerges is totally captivating although a little confusing. New symbols emerge,  which deepen the  text. Again the cast is reduced to three performers. Volk is Brutus Jones in blackface with exaggerated red lips and a red, multilayered outfit like that of a third-world potentate.  Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd alternate playing Smithers, costumed in the Asian-African fusion,  and the Stage Assistant, all in black. 

“Warehouse” describes the St. Ann’s theatre space well. There are comfortable bleacher seats and the raised stage is like a boxing ring without ropes. Two TV monitors are placed at the rear of the stage, and there is no attempt to hide cables or backstage equipment. Two palm trees set the scene.  At times the Stage Assistant  leaves his backstage chair to push the wheelchair – an absurdist throne -- in which the Emperor has seated himself. The production is a brief but intense sixty minutes. We experience the play mostly inside Jones’s head. For me, the production played much better on my  second visit, when the nuances and creative choices seemed more evocative and even witty rather than simply obfuscations.

The text is deconstructed and recast. The production is at once playful, tongue-in-check and serious. At one point, Jones and Smithers do a soft shoe routine,  which fractures the mood of the text but makes for  a delightful moment and  reminds us  how the two  have been working hand-in-glove. Their sometimes overlapping dialogue sounds like a duet.  The heart of the play sometimes seems to be their competition for Emperor, which is recast as a contest to see which of them is the better showman. Volk wins hands down. She is compelling. She sounds like a large black man,  snarling,  elongating words,  shifting the pitch and tempo of her lines, almost singing the phrases and then laughing with a great, triumphant sound, a challenge to the universe to try to stop the Emperor. It is thrilling when this woman in blackface (with her hands left white) pulls a gun and says in a deep voice, “Talk polite, white man.”  At times she pans the audience and grins, her eyes rolling,  perhaps in self-mockery, perhaps just playing up her role. 

The electronic sound design is filled with static, screeches, scratches, Morse code, and dissonance (scores by David Linton and Christopher Kondek; sound design by John Collins and Geoff Abbas). The bell that Jones rings to summon the natives sounds like the clink of a cash register. Video monitors display color-sound patterns; negative images that becomes their own masks; conversations between Smithers and the Witch Doctor  that seem taped  by bad equipment (perhaps as a comment on Jones’s island economy). The technology creates a frightening, surrealistic background for the Emperor’s boldness, which arouses mixed reactions of admiration and revulsion.

The show ends suddenly. The Witch Doctor and Smithers, who are collaborators, appear on television and say four times “We got him.”  There are three gunshots.  The Emperor crosses the stage and lies down. Then rises and exits. The play is done, presentational to the end. A casual viewer might suspect that this is an uneven work of great imagination by a young, contemporary downtown playwright who is learning his craft. The Wooster Group has rediscovered something in O’Neill that other performances have missed.

“The Emperor Jones” has a curious history.  It broke the bank of the Provincetown Players when the 32 year old Eugene O’Neill offered it to them in 1920.   Jig Cook, the visionary Artistic Director, invested $500, almost the full theatre  budget,  to construct a suitable cyclorama for the scenes. Despite objections, the company  hired Charles Gilpin,  a 41-year old black actor, not an actor in black face as was the custom, to play Brutus Jones. The papers predicted racial riots.  The hypnotic tom-tom, which O’Neill instructed to be played at the same rate as the human pulse, was an experiment in sound design.   

Uptown critics and audiences flocked to the tiny Playwrights Theatre at 133  McDougal Street, which soon found its accounts in the black again. Maida Castellun of The New York Call wrote that “the Provincetown Players give the most thrilling evening of their theatrical lives. Vivid imagination, relentless power; a rare feast for lovers of true drama.” Demand for tickets was so great, the play  moved to Broadway for 204 performances, but the reviews were mixed. All praised the performance by  Gilpin, who eventually was replaced by the legendary Paul Robeson. Always conscious of the black image, Robeson felt that the play had racist elements, but he remained in the cast and went on to play other O’Neill roles. 

The play reflected some of the playwright’s experience as a sailor in Honduras. Biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb identified an articulate,  muscular black bartender, Adam Scott, as the inspiration for the Emperor. O’Neill even borrowed some of his phrases for the dialogue.  Some critics have read  the revolution in Haiti as a source  for O’Neill.  Later critics condemned the play as a white man’s vision,  presenting a harmful or disrespectful image,  and for what was considered an excessive use of the word “nigger.”  Ironically, the popularity of rap music with its repetition of the “N” word may have contributed to a new respect for the play.  Readers  find it difficult because of the dialect, and the expressionistic  structure is sometimes  misinterpreted as representational drama, but once you hear it, the tragedy resonates.  

Glenda Frank teaches theatre at FIT, SUNY, reviews theatre for Back Stage, and has received two NEH awards. Her articles have been published in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Jewish Women in America, The Eugene O'Neill Review, and Theatre Journal.

 

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