The Emperor Jones
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 3, 2006
Arthur Adair's new production of The Emperor Jones is grand, revelatory theatre. It's a testament to the audacity of vision of the young playwright Eugene O'Neill (who was about 30 when he wrote it); and, more generally, to the potency of dramatic storytelling. Drawing on the classical Greek model—only three actors and virtually no set to speak of, just three promontories that the audience looks down upon from seating that comes as close to recreating the side of a hill as it's possible to accomplish in an indoor space—Adair and his collaborators reinvent this famous but neglected play and show it to be an authentic tragedy, even arriving at genuine catharsis in the final moments.
The Emperor Jones tells the story of an African American man named Brutus Jones who, through a singular set of circumstances, has become the ruler of a remote island in the West Indies. In America, he was a Pullman porter, but after a fight over a crap game, he killed a man, was sent to prison, and then killed his overseer while out working on a chain gang. He managed to escape to this island, where he conned the natives into making him their emperor and where he has systematically stolen as much as he can get his hands on ever since.
But the winds are changing in the emperor's domain, and in the first scene of the play, Jones is informed by his white "advisor" Smithers that revolution is afoot. Jones decides to make a run for it, and most of the drama takes place that very night, as our protagonist flees through a very dark forest on his way to the coast, where a boat stands ready to transport him to Martinique and safety.
But the Emperor Jones has to get through that forest first, and as O'Neill has envisioned it, it's a hotbed of every fear, anxiety, and residual guilt dwelling inside Brutus Jones's mind and heart. "Formless fears" eventually give way to visions of his sins and then of the sins committed by Americans against his people. Jones is reduced from a cocky, self-confident, well-dressed autocrat to a raw primitive, stripped of his clothes and his assured bearing, as he is forced to confront and attempt to overcome the stuff that has eaten away at his humanity and soul.
Adair's approach to the material—which is potentially very melodramatic—is to transform it into something approaching ritual. All of O'Neill's stage directions are read aloud to us, at first by Xander Gaines (who plays Jones) and then for most of the play by Sheila Dabney (who also takes two other roles, at the very beginning and the very end of the piece). They read their texts from atop wooden peaks that rise from the stage floor behind the main playing area; the "stage" is a wooden square about 15 feet off the ground, accessible by two steep sets of stairs to the left and right. The only furniture is Jones's throne, depicted here as an oversized steel chair so high off the floor that Gaines's legs dangle when he sits on it; it is removed after Scene I and the rest of the play, laid in various locations within the forest, is performed on a bare stage. Dabney's expressive reading of O'Neill's wondrously vivid descriptions are all that we need to "see" where we are and what's going on (abetted, beautifully, by Adair's gorgeous and evocative lighting and sound design).
Right up front, Adair teaches his audience to trust their mind's eye instead of the tangibles displayed before us: he wants us to trust in the words and the theatrical effects to create the physicality of this play, and so what we see contradicts what the script tells us we see: the throne, we are told, is made of wood and painted scarlet, but we see a stark metal chair; the old woman (played by Dabney) is said to have a shock of white hair, but Dabney's is thick and black. Later, Adair will let his audience conjure everything from a slave ship to a crap game to a terrifying crocodile without putting a thing on stage. This is the most potent kind of storytelling.
And there's method to all of this, and art: because I was always aware of the artifice of the experience, I was able to get wrapped up in the story but remain detached from it at the same time. I found myself thinking, what would an audience have made of this remarkable play in 1920? Adair lets us separate the latent racism of the piece from the authentically radical attacks on institutionalized bigotry that are the most forceful components of its thesis; just five years after Birth of a Nation had become the most popular film in the United States, this play daringly tried to show how severely African Americans had been wronged at the hands of the white majority.
Adair also creates two uninterrupted hours of riveting theatre. Gaines is magisterial in the marathon role of Jones, while Dabney is unforgettable as the Chorus; theirs rank among the very finest performances currently on stage anywhere in New York. Brian P. Glover completes the cast most skillfully in the smaller role of Smithers. Adair is rapidly emerging as one of indie theatre's most exciting auteurs; if you care about the future of theatre, then this electrifying and imaginative production is something you won't want to miss.