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The Emperor Jones

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 13, 2017

Obi Abili
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Has devolution ever appeared more terrifying—or more vital—onstage than it does in The Emperor Jones? Although Eugene O'Neill's drama has, in many quarters, fallen far out of fashion since its 1920 premiere, it's something of an early-American-expressionism masterpiece, arousing the senses and the mind in ways that more recent plays struggle to do. And, despite reflecting racial politics and attitudes that are largely unfamiliar to us, it remains shockingly powerful and relevant in its methods of addressing its ancient ideas.

All of this is on full view, too, in CiarĂ¡n O'Reilly's arresting production that just opened at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Though a revival of a 2009 mounting, albeit with a different cast led by a riveting Obi Abili in the title role, it still feels so freshly pressed that you can get an idea of the electric thrills that must have jolted its inaugural audiences of nearly 100 years ago. Because of its unfettered frankness, it's no easier to watch or listen to than the more lacerating plays of, say, August Wilson. And, on its own terms, it's every bit as important.

In certain aspects of its construction, it recalls the more mythic installments of the earlier works (chronologically) in Wilson's acclaimed "Century Cycle." When Brutus Jones, who set himself up as the emperor of a West Indies tribe after escaping from the United States, races through the forest to escape the oncoming revolution of the people he's subjugated, he must confront the ghosts that have made him what he is: specters that manifest themselves as personal crimes (a man he murdered), tribal mysticism (a witch doctor that exerts untold power over him), and, of course, slavery.

These encounters strip Jones to his very core, a development that's mirrored in his gradual shedding of layers of his regal attire until nothing but nothing is left but a ragged pair of trousers. But they likewise demand that we all face the history that made it possible for Jones to fall, rise, and fall again. The confluence of influences from Africa and America alike were (are?) all responsible; but it's up to us to listen to their echoes down through the centuries, and heed their wisdom. If we don't, might we not end up as dangerous—and condescending—as Henry Smithers, the white man who sets Jones on his flight, but never changes his opinion of him, regardless of the facts at his disposal?

Even if several generations of progress and the revolutionary Civil Rights movement have presented certain key answers to such questions, The Emperor Jones is unsettling yet in how it tackles its ideas. The rampant use of the "N word" might raise some eyebrows. (It reportedly did for the original star, Charles Gilpin, who objected to its frequent use; he was eventually replaced by rising star Paul Robeson.) And, even if you're familiar with other expressionist works of the period, such as Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, Sophie Treadwell's Machinal, or O'Neill's own The Hairy Ape, the sheer, violent variety of the form's application here, yanks you into the universe with considerable force.

Obi Abili
Photo by Carol Rosegg

O'Reilly doesn't blunt the impact, but instead amplifies it by slowly increasing the temperature of the play's initial smolder. Whereas the earlier scenes of Jones's descent border on the naturalistic, later on they acquire a nightmarescape quality that can believably upend dreams. And, through tiny adjustments in pacing and emphasis, a journey that first feels like a leisurely stroll soon transforms into a heart-pounding marathon. And every aspect of the physical production is in sync with this mindset.

The set (by Charlie Corcoran) is dark and imposing, at once precisely articulated and formless in depicting both obscene wealth and abject ruination; and does that downstage tree represent the barrier Jones must overcome to achieve his freedom, or his ultimate (unpleasant) spiritual destination? The costumes (by Antonia Ford-Roberts and Whitney Locher) likewise limn every possible notion of class from the humans, and strip it away to reveal the primal floral and faunal forms of Jones's verdant prison; some of the most terrifying "characters" are the trees that torment Jones. And Brian Nason's lights and Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab's sound are keenly toxic mixes of blithe fantasy and pure, shadowy horror. Perhaps most effective are Bob Flanagan's puppets and masks, which anthropomorphize Jones's deepest fears, whether of his ancestors' past or the dangers of the world he's trying to flee. From put-upon laborers to a macabre slave auction to a hungry crocodile, they so elevate his experiences—and ours—that they come to seem far more real than anything we'd identify as corporeal.

Such is the wonder of the theatre, where the openly fake becomes not just recognizable but essential. There is, however, nothing fake about Abili, who charts Jones's majestic heights and crushing collapse with utter lucidity. It's difficult, at times, to believe the cool, virile figure of the early play, who perches on his throne and wears a golden laurel wreath about his head, is the same man who's reduced to a shriveled, desperate soul less than an hour later, but Abili makes the change completely convincing. You see in his eyes both the hope and the dread that define Jones, and in his body the stature that has nothing to do but erode; just the way his stiff shoulders buckle under the weight he assumes on his chase is a miracle on its own.

There is no shortage of other magical moments on Jones's path to himself. The agony he feels when whipped at a grotesquely lurching speed. The confusion that consumes him as he's all but devoured by the communal memory of those who have come before him. The foot-tangling frenzy into which he's thrust near the end of his quest, when he's no longer able to avoid any of what's made him who he is. The rest of the cast, which includes Andy Murray as a no-nonsense Smithers and Sinclair Mitchell as the abrasive, aggressive witch doctor, is no less than expert. But in embracing both Jones's humanity and total lack of it, Abili is truly superb.

His performance may be conventional compared with the white Kate Valk's now-storied blackface take for the Wooster Group, for example. But, really, no more is needed. Our perspectives on race, each other, and the world we inhabit may change over the years, but certain truths are immutable. O'Neill didn't want us to get away without staring them down, and O'Reilly and Abili ensure today that we do the same. The title character may be forever fighting against his own concepts of identity, but at every level, this version of The Emperor Jones knows exactly what it is and what it needs to be. And we are all the richer for it.

The Emperor Jones
Through April 23
The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix