A CurtainUp Review
The Emperor Jones
By Elyse Sommer
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 (see link to review below).
More recently, British director Thea Sharrock's revival proved that a more traditionally cast production also still had the power to both shock and thrill audiences — enough so to move from the Gate Theatre to the larger National. The production's black emperor, Paterson Joseph, found little to be embarrassed about given the raves for his performance. Our London critic called it astonishing. And astonishing is also the adjective that best describes The Emperor Jones now at the invaluable Irish Rep in Chelsea.
As he did with another early O'Neill play, The Hairy Ape (see review link below), director Ciaran O'Reilly remains true to the text and the playwright's intent. He's found the perfect Brutus Jones in John Douglas Thompson who's impressed audiences and critics with his portrayals of Othello (both for Theatre for a New Audience and at Shakespeare & Company) and now digs deep into the psyche of the flawed but fascinating title character, a man who's both victim and victimizer.
O'Reilly's staging is mindblowing. 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, those puppets and masks are a stunning evocation of the past that haunt Jones' desperate flight from his rebellious subjects: From his Pullman porter days 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 nighmarish 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.
The crafts team O'Reilly has assembled to create this eerie Jungian landscape is extraordinary. The extraordinary puppets and the actors who inhabit them, as well as the costumes, atmospheric music and lighting are not just co-stars, but could easily upstage a lesser actor than Thompson. But Thompson is riveting. He handles the difficult text with ease and emotional resonance. He is physically commanding, and is not in the least bit phased by the choreographic demands of the role. Though this is basically almost a one-person monologue there are times when this production looks and feels like a ballet which would be aptly entitled Dance of Death or Dance Macabre.
Thompson's Jones brings to his mock throne a blustery realism learned during his Pullman porter days ("For de big stealin' dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o' Fame when you croaks"). When we first see him he's still the self-confident entrepreneur who became emperor by convincing the islanders that he could only be killed by a silver bullet. He's pragmatically put his religion "on the shelf" and prepared for a safe escape when his con game is up, as he realizes it will be. As we watch him flee through the forest to the accompaniment of the pursuing natives' increasingly intense drumbeat, the bravura diminishes and the tension becomes almost unbearable.
Dick Foucheux oozes sleaziness as Henry Smithers, the Cockney trader whose own greed made him help Jones ascend his ill-gotten throne. He is clearly torn between fear and hate but a certain amount of amiration for Jones' hubris. His conniving betrayal of Jones supports O'Neill's vision of Jones as tragic hero, to be more pitied than despised, illustrating the fallout from white values and prejudices on African-American culture.
The Emperor Jones by TheWooster Group
Emperor Jones-in London, 2004
The Hairy Ape also at the Irish Rep[
Curtainup's Eugene O'Neill Backgrounder