By Samuel L. Leiter
The Irish Repertory Theatre has a rather liberal interpretation of its titular mission, which can be seen by its occasional production of plays by Irish Americans, like Eugene O’Neill, whose explosive 1920 play The Emperor Jones, is now receiving its second revival. (The first was in 2009 starring John Douglas Thompson and directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, who staged this replication of his earlier production.)
O’Neill’s semi-expressionistic one-act was considered an artistic pathbreaker in its day. Partly this is because it was one of the first important plays by a white playwright centered on a black character (played by Charles Gilpin in the original and Paul Robeson in the 1933 movie), and partly because it broke away so radically from then conventional realism in favor of imaginative, nonrealistic, theatrical staging for its final scenes. Over the years, the play has had to overcome charges of racism, but, fortunately, it continues to receive notable productions.
Its present incarnation, running a swift 65 minutes, enjoys the commanding presence of British actor Obi Abili. This impressive-looking thespian fully embodies the boastful, crafty, ruthless, crap-shooting Brutus Jones, a former Pullman porter and murderer who escaped from a U.S. prison to a West Indian island where he manipulated the locals to become their emperor. Forget about skin color and listen to some of his words for reflections on our current political leadership.
O’Neill, using a story he’d heard about an actual Haitian leader, attributes Jones’s sway to his exploitation of the natives’ superstitious fears by claiming only a silver bullet can kill him. Aiding him is a greedy, craven Cockney trader named Smithers (Andy Murray).
When his corrupt dictatorship, under which he makes the laws and embezzles the money, turns his victimized people against him, the haughty Jones flees through the jungle, with the money he’s stolen, toward a waiting boat. In a half dozen brief scenes, during which he’s the only speaker, the jungle comes alive in his increasingly fevered imagination with “the Little Formless Fears,” seen as terrifying spirits, frightening rituals, and chilling sounds (created by the top-notch Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab), including the heartbeat-like throbbing of drums. Jones’s past misdeeds and racial memories, such as a slave auction, burst into vivid life before he fires his silver bullet at a huge crocodile before he himself dies by such a bullet crafted by the natives.
Charlie Corcoran’s set of loose hangings, dominated at first by Jones’s raised throne, becomes, in the scenes of jungle madness, a kaleidoscopic playground for lighting designer Brian Nason’s nightmarish effects. Costume designers Antonia Ford-Roberts and Whitney Locher contrive a variety of eerie costumes for the spirits, many of them seeming to be offshoots of the surrounding trees, while puppets and fearsome masks (the work of Bob Flanagan) further heighten the hair-raising atmosphere. Every move is excitingly choreographed by Barry McNabb, most memorably a dance featuring a colorful witch doctor (Sinclair Mitchell).
Abili fills the stage with ample physical and vocal force although his words, written in heavy “Negro” dialect, are sometimes muffled. At one point he whips his throne platform with one muscular blow after another, such that you shudder at the thought of what the effect would be on a human back. The ensemble, including Carl Hendrick Louis as the native called Lem, are all up to the task.
I missed Thompson’s 2009 performance so I can’t compare him to Abili but, for now, Abili has set the high standard I’ll remember the next time someone tackles The Emperor Jones.
The Emperor Jones
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd Street, NYC
Through April 23
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).