by Carol Rocamora
That frightening figure high on his blood-red throne, staring out at you from the darkness, will haunt you long after you leave the theatre. He’s the self-appointed Emperor Jones of Eugene O’Neill’s eponymous 1920 play, and he’s one of the most terrifying tyrants ever to rule the stage.
As conjured up from a young playwright’s feverish imagination, Jones has a back-story of mythical proportions. He began as Brutus Jones, an obscure African-American Pullman porter who killed another black man in a game of dice. He was thrown in jail, but escaped, fled to an unnamed Caribbean island, set himself up as an emperor, and instituted a reign of terror. We meet him at the height of his powers, just as his luck is about to turn; a rebel force has been organized against him, and pursues him through the jungle.
Jones’s frenzied flight is what constitutes the action of the play – and, as directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, it’s a wild ride. As Jones journeys through a fantastical jungle of fear and paranoia, actors dressed as huge trees loom out the darkness to entangle him (costumed by Antonia Ford-Roberts and Whitney Locher). Ghosts from his past appear as life-sized puppets – the man he killed at the dice game, prisoners on a chain gang, even ancestral slaves being sold on the auction block while Southern belles look on (they are puppets too). It’s all very scary and surreal, up until the moment when the masked rebels finally catch up with him and he meets the inexorable end of all tyrants. (Puppets and primitive masks are by Bob Flanagan).
What drives this highly expressionistic production is the charismatic Obi Abili as Emperor Jones, giving one of the most exciting performances on the New York stage this season. Abili follows in the footsteps of other great actors who’ve played the role – from Paul Robeson in 1924 to John Douglas Thompson in 2009. British-born-and-trained, Abili has a commanding stage presence that keeps you utterly riveted throughout. He fills the tiny Irish Repertory Theatre with his explosive power. As a tyrant, he’s utterly convincing, hurling racial slurs at his subjects that will shock a contemporary audience – especially since they’re coming from a black man who is denigrating black people. And yet we pity him in the end, just as we pity murderers like Macbeth or Coriolanus. Such is the power of Abili’s performance as a deluded tragic figure of Greek or Shakespearean magnitude.
Abili is supported by an energetic cast – notably Andy Murray as Smithers, the one white character in the play who both admires and fears Jones; and Lem, the rebel leader, played by a compelling Carl Hendrick Lewis in a frightening mask that will haunt your dreams. Will he just be one more tyrant to replace the former one?
O’Neill had already had quite a bit of life experience by the time he reached age 32 when he wrote the play – including colorful adventures at sea and on shore (with drugs and alcohol). His dramatic imagination was ripe for experimentation. According to scholar Robert M. Dowling, O’Neill had heard a story from one of his drinking companions about a murderous Haitian dictator of the time who swore he’d die from his own silver bullet, rather than be killed by his enemies. Inspired by that story, O’Neill conjured up his own Emperor – a despot and sadistic racist taken down by a rebel’s silver bullet instead.
Director O’Reilly and his design team have dramatized Emperor Jones’s journey in powerful theatrical terms. Now if only Jones didn’t remind us of other present-day despots lurking in the dark political jungle. “I knows I can fool ‘em – I knows it – and that’s backin’ enough for my game,” boasts Jones. Sound familiar?
The Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, at the Irish Repertory Theatre Extended through May 21.
Photos: Carol Rosegg