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A CurtainUp Review
The Emperor Jones

Who dare whistle dat way in my palace? Who dare wake up de Emperor? I'll get de hide frayled off some o' you niggers sho!
— that's just the first of Brutus Jones' controversial utterances.
Obi Abili
Obi Abili as the "Emperor" (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
I can't think of a better way to celebrate the Irish Rep's 29th Season than with a reprise of their stunning 2009 production of The Emperor Jones. Happily, it's not only still breathtakingly original, but less happily it will bring to mind political leaders dominating our current headlines.

Long before David Mamet peppered his dialogue with "F" words, Eugene O'Neill gave the "N" word a similar workout in The Emperor Jones, his first critical and commercial success. O'Neill's intent was not to demonize people of color, but to lay bare the brutalizing history that shaped men like Brutus Jones. Yet, nowadays that wince-inducing word, not to mention the rest of the dialectic dialogue and the chilling portrait of the former Pullman porter who became the ruthless dictator of a West Indian island, has caused many to deem it as unperformable — a painfully negative stereotype to watch and an embarrassment for any modern black actor to play.

That unperformable stigma, notwithstanding, The Emperor Jones has not remained permanently wrapped in month balls. In 1996 the always cutting edge Wooster Group addressed the sensitive issue of having a black actor speaking the politically incorrect lingo by ironically casting Kate Valk, a white woman in black face. The result was quite brilliant (review).

In 2004 British director Thea Sharrock's revival proved that a more traditionally cast production also still had the power to both shock and thrill audiences. Our London critic called it astonishing. Astonishing is also the adjective that best described my reaction to Ciaran O'Reilly's The Emperor Jones at the invaluable Irish Rep in Chelsea eight years ago. As he did with another early and rarely produced O'Neill play, The Hairy Ape the director remained true to the text and the playwright's intent.

emperor jones
John Douglas Thompson as the "Emperor" in 2009
O'Reilly also lucked out by finding the perfect Brutus Jones in John Douglas Thompson who dug deep into the psyche of the flawed but fascinating title character—, a man who's both victim and victimizer.

To add to this production's pleasures there was the mind blowing staging. O'Neill himself restored masks to the theater in 1926 with The Great God Brown in order to, as he put it, "express those profound hidden conflicts of the mind which the probings of psychology continue to disclose to us." For a play that except for the opening unfolds mostly in the title character's mind, it seemed natural to follow in O'Neill's footsteps and use puppets and masks as an evocation of the past that haunt Jones' desperate flight from his rebellious subjects. Those puppets and masks become figures populating these dreams that range from his Pullman porter years, to his days on a chain gang where he killed a guard, to his escape to the West Indies Island where he finagled his way to an ill-begotten throne.

For me the most unforgettable of these nightmarish scenes are a slave auction and Jones's encounter with the last and scariest apparition, a Crocodile God that finally drives him to squander the silver bullet he's saved for his own worst case scenario exit.

While John Douglas Thompson is currently on Broadway as the head of the taxi company of August Wilson's Jitney Mr. O'Reilly has found an interesting new Brutus Jones for the current production. It's hard to top Thompson's riveting performance — the way he applied his renowned Shakespearian vocal clarity to the play's distinctive lingo and the ease and emotional resonance with which he handled the difficult text. The British actor Obi Abili hasn't mastered the brutish Jones's dialect with quite the same crystal clear line delivery. However, his more physically focused interpretation, especially during the heavily choreographed moments, is quite extraordinary and works well with this expressionistic presentation. choreographic demands of the role. The rest of the ensemble is also new to this production, including an aptly smarmy Andy Murray as Smithers, the Cockney trader whose own greed made him help Jones ascend his ill-gotten throne.

Fortunately the phenomenal crafts team from the 2009 production are on board to once more create this eerie Jungian landscape. The amazing puppets and the actors who inhabit them, as well as the costumes, atmospheric music and lighting are what makes this Emperor Jones so special.

If anyone warrants an extra round of applause, it's choreographer Barry McNabb. Though the play is almost a one-person monologue, there are times when this production looks and feels like a ballet to fit a title of Dance of Death or Dance Macabre. To get back to my comment about this play having sadly become more timely since its original run, just listen to this from O'Neill's self-confident entrepreneur who became emperor by convincing the islanders that he could only be killed by a silver bullet: "Sure I talks large when I ain't got nothing to back it up, but I ain't talkin' wild just the same. I knows I can fool 'em — I knows it — and that's backin' enough for my game."

Note: Watch for my review next month of a new production of The Hairy Ape that's coming to the Armory on Park Avenue with a starry cast. ( the link which will go active when that review is posted ) For more about Eugene O'Neill including links to plays by him that we've seen and reviewed at the Irish Rep and elsewhere, see the O'Neill chapter of our Playwrights Album

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The Emperor Jones by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Ciaran O'Reilly
Choreography: Barry McNabb
Cast: Obi Alibi (Brutus Jones),Andy Murray (Henry Smithers); Ensemble: William Bellamy, Carl Hendrick Louis, Sinclair Mitchell, Angel Moore, Reggie Talley(Ensemble) Set Design: Charlie Corcoran
Costume Design: Antonia Ford-Roberts & Whitney Locher
Lighting Design: Brian Nason
Music by Christian Frederickson
Sound Design & Music: Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab
Puppet and Mask Design: Bob Flanagan
Props Designer: Deirdre Brennan
Stage Manager: Karen Evanouskas
Running Time: 70 minutes without intermission
Irish Repertory Theatre 132 West 22nd Street212-727-2737.
From 3/01/17; opening 3/12/17; closing 5/21/17
Reviewed by elyse Sommer at 3/09 press preview

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