The Emperor Jones
A theater company should not consider staging Eugene O’Neill’s expressionistic 1920 drama The Emperor Jones without a dominating presence for the title role. American Century Theatre has one in Bus Howard, a powerfully built man who carries the production capably on his broad shoulders.
O’Neill’s long one-act play was audacious in its own time, and is still noteworthy for its theatricality. Largely a monologue, the drama follows Brutus Jones (Howard), a former Pullman porter and escaped convict, who has managed to establish himself as emperor of a Caribbean island by exploiting the natives. But unrest is rising around him, and Jones flees his palace for the dark forest.
The core of the drama is more Jones’ internal journey than his external one. To the relentless and accelerating beat of a native drum (performed by accomplished drummer Barbara Weber), the “emperor” is forced to face his personal fears, both personal and racial.
Howard manages to bring out all the contradictions of the character: supremely confident at the beginning, becoming increasingly paranoid as his guilt and fears catch up with him. His performance is also superbly physical, conveying the sheer raw strength of a man who has built his life from scratch and now faces losing everything.
John Tweel makes an impact in the only other major role, a sly Cockney trader who helped Jones in the early days and now warns of his impending downfall. A noteworthy ensemble helps out in small roles, most interestingly as the abstract “Little Formless Fears” who bedevil Jones in the forest.
Director Ed Bishop has worked with his designers to create a fascinating and all-encompassing vision for the play. Thomas B. Kennedy’s environmental scenic design and AnnMarie Castrigno’s atmospheric lighting surround the audience, using simple components to conjure up jungle growth and Jones’ treacherous visions. Suzanne Maloney’s costumes range from Jones’ ostentatious finery to the ragged clothes of the peasants.
The production still had a few ragged moments at the press opening - actors not quite off the stage when the lights came up for the next scene, and a long pause during the curtain call while Howard changed costume - but the strengths are already present, and likely to get better during the run.
American Century Theatre