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A CurtainUp Review
The Emperor Jones

News: This Emperor has been such a Wow! that it's been given a second run at SoHo Playhouse 15 Vandam Street from 12/15/09 to 1/31/10. Ticket are $65. 212-691-1555 And, comes summer, you can see John Douglas Thompson as Richard III at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachussetts. See our Berkshire News Page for details.
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.
emperor jones
John Douglas Thompson
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 (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
The Emperor Jones by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Ciaran O'Reilly
Cast: John Douglas Thompson (Brutus Jones, Emperor); Dick Foucheux (Henry Smithers) Michael Akil Davis (Ensemble, Crocodile God), Jon Deliz (Ensemble, Dandy), Sameerah Lugmaan-Harris (Old Native Woman, Ensemble), David Heron (Lem, Native Chief/ Ensemble), Sinclair Mitchel (Ensemble, Witch Doctor)
Set design: CharliesCorcoran
Costume design: Antonia Ford-Roberts
Lighting design: Brian Nason
Original music and sound design: Ryan Rumery and Christian Fredrickson
Puppet design: Bob Flanagan
Choreography: Barry McNabb
Properties: Deidre Brennan
Stage Manager: Pamela Brusoski
Running Time: 70 minutes without intermission
Irish Repertory Theatre 132 West 22nd Street212-727-2737.
From 10/07/09; opening 10/18/09; closing 12/06/09
After closing at the Irish Rep-- the show will move to the SoHo Rep for another run from 12/15/09 to 1/31/10
Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8pm; plus 3pm matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays (with the following exceptions: no performance Thursday, November 26; and an additional performance Tuesday, November 24 at 8pm).
Tickets: $65 and $55
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at October 15th press preview
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