photos by Carol Rosegg
by Julia Polinsky
The Emperor Jones at the
Irish Repertory Theatre may be the best version of this play in many years.
Between the terrific performance by Obi Abili as Jones, and the splendid vision
of director Ciaran O’Reilly, this is one of those times when a not-so-good play
gets an excellent production, which makes it a don’t-miss.
The Emperor Jones is not a
particularly well made play; it’s an Expressionist drama, and Expressionism
puts consciousness onstage. What happens to the characters is less important
than the inner landscape of the mind. That can be boring and tedious.
Not to mention, a lot has been
said about The Emperor Jones’s racism. O’Neill was writing in the early
20th century. He uses the N-word. Often. Also writes Jones speaking
with the cliché speech patterns that writers used to use when writing black
characters, a kind of “mammy-speak” that grates on the ear. That’s maybe hard
for modern audiences to hear, but it’s the truth of the author, the play, and
its time. Kudos to the Irish Repertory Theatre for not whitewashing it.
And Obi Abili does it with
absolute conviction. He gives an astonishing performance as Brutus Jones. His
rage, his arrogance, his fear, his regret, remorse, and disintegration are all
perfectly embodied. It’s a knockout performance. It will be exciting to watch
how his career develops.
plays Brutus Jones, a former Pullman porter, a murderer, and a stowaway
fugitive from a chain gang, who has reinvented himself as the Emperor of an
island in the West Indies. For a couple of years, he’s been exploiting the
native population to make himself rich and powerful. He despises the
superstitious natives, who believe that he can only be killed by a silver
bullet -- a story he planted himself. As if to tempt the gods, Jones carries a
revolver, loaded with five lead bullets and one silver one.
(Andy Murray), the white man who first employed him and is now in his thrall,
learns that Jones’s time as Emperor is done – a rebellion has begun. Smithers
warns Jones, who leaves his “palace,” confident that he can make his way
through the forest to the coast, and escape.
journey becomes a nightmare of illusions? Dreams? Hallucinations? Although he
says he doesn’t believe in “haunts,” his formless fears and the ghosts of those
he killed appear, and he relives those murders. He sees and feels the impact of
slavery. He is threatened by a witch doctor and a crocodile god. Crazed, he
shoots at the fears and ghosts and hallucinations, leaving himself defenseless
he’s run out of bullets, anger, and fear, Jones returns to his Christian
upbringing, calling for forgiveness and mercy. Yet he is powerless against the
dead, the slavers, the fears, the crocodile god, and the witch doctor who bring
about his final punishment.
do they? In the final scene, a group of rebels fire their guns – with silver
bullets – and drag Jones’s body onstage. Did they kill him? Or was he already
The ensemble, who act all the
roles from Old Woman (Angel Moore) to Crocodile (Reggie Talley) are all
terrific, with special notice to Sinclair Mitchell’s performance as the Witch
Doctor, and Carl Hendrick Louis’s Lem.
Sinclair Mitchell, Obi Abili, and
O’Reilly’s The Emperor Jones
uses movement, masks, and puppets to express what’s going on in Jones’s mind.
Charlie Corcoran’s evocative set works with Brian Nason’s excellent lighting,
masks and puppets by Bob Flanagan, and costumes by Antonia Ford-Roberts and
Whitney Locker, to mesh into a visual that perfectly illuminates Jones’s
descent into hell with eerie, compelling alienation.
The Emperor Jones can be
seen at the Irish Repertory Theatre until May 21. It’s worth seeing just for
Abili as Jones, but the whole production is magical in its own way. Go see it.
You’ll be able to say “Oh, I remember that. It was great.”
The Emperor Jones
At The Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., New York, NY
Wednesdays through Sundays, until May 21
Tickets, $50-70: box office 212-727-2737 https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/32325#_ga=1.232460378.475129570.1491252700