Eugene O’Neill’s universal and timeless, The Emperor Jones was written and performed in the 1920s, but its themes have remained strikingly current throughout the decades. Enjoying its second revival (the first in 2009), at Irish Repertory Theatre, its present iteration is delivered with a forceful propulsion that carries it with a resounding crash into the political climate of today as it recalls how leaders achieve and maintain power through idealization, myth, fabrication, and manipulation of their followers’ fears and uncertainties.
The production (it has been extended until the 21 of May), is directed by Ciarán O’Reilly with precision and a fearful, thrilling relentlessness as the protagonist is brought to heel by his own inner terrors and eventual self-immolation. O’Reilly ably shocks us with the volcanic dynamism of the play’s age-old themes: social/cultural abuse and inhuman treatment beget a return on “investment” blow for blow, nightmare for nightmare, insanity for insanity.
As we experience the inevitable and eerie end of Jones, portrayed by Obi Abili in a bravura, mesmerizing performance, we once again confront the most bleak illumination of the human condition. Unless the macabre demons of the human soul are continually confronted and exorcised by the one whom they attempt to victimize, no one is safe, least of all the victim who seeks to control his inner turmoil by oppressing and brutalizing others. It is doubly impossible to overcome the misery, if the culture has forced the victim to internalize such fears with an iron hand using its own brand of oppression, intimidation, and abuse.
Such is the story of the garden-variety dictator and despot, who abused, abuses others. Such is the hell-raising, mythic story of the “Emperor Jones,” a self-appointed autocrat who rules his subjects with ferocity and enriches himself from their labors.
Jones, a former Pullman porter has been socially/racially oppressed and abused as a black man in the southern United States in the early 20th century, which we learn through a series of Jones’ revelations during the action of the play. Jones attempts to escape his past and the justice which inevitably will be coming for him (he killed a black man, was tried and jailed and during the torments on a chain-gang, kills a white guard). He makes a successful prison-break and flees to an island whose government is dubiously corrupt and whose society is in various stages of revolt, anxious for a leader to take them away from their cultural trials.
In two years on the island, Jones through a serendipitous run of luck, manages to transform his life and reconcile his failures to earn enough money with the thought of retiring to another island. To do this he employs the cynical philosophy and modus operandi that he has learned listening to the exploits and dastardly deeds of elitist, meretricious white gentry in his role as a porter: following their principles he bullies, oppresses, and steals from those he rules.
With confidence, bravado, and some assistance from a conniving white trader Smithers (Andy Murray plays the low-down Henry with treacherous cowardice), he becomes the self-appointed emperor over the native population whom he exploits in a fearful oppression. His reign of terror is fastened by the myth he perpetuates that he can only be overthrown by death at his own hands; he must be shot through with a silver bullet. It is a convenient fantastical deterrent, Jones believes, because the citizens only have lead bullets; silver bullets cannot be made on the island.
When O’Neill introduces us to Jones at the play’s outset, he sits center stage on a makeshift, imperial, red throne. He is dressed in the appropriate garb of an emperor with gold leaf cornet, and his pompous disdain for his demeaned subjects is overwhelming. Truly, he has forgotten his humble beginnings, or perhaps he is “fronting” them.
The play chronicles Jones’ devolution into mania and self-destruction in a primeval forest when his subjects revolt against his unjust predation. As he flees their capture and execution, his bravado and self-assurance evaporates and self-loathing consumes him. His own worst enemy, Jones paranoid fears are brought to life by mystical demons, spirits, and other beings. This segment is beautifully realized through O’Reilly’s staging and the dance spearheaded by Barry McNabb’s choreography, and performances by the ensemble: William Bellamy, J. Cameron Barnett, Sinclair Mitchell, Angel Moore, Reggie Talley. The otherworldly beings (enacted by the once oppressed subjects symbolically dressed “to kill”), eventually lead him to his own demise.
The unremitting thunder of the drum beats telegraphing the gradual shrinking of Jones’ autonomy and freedom as the spirits and mythic beings close in on him, propel his feverish brain into a storm of chaos and sorrowful remembrance and self- recriminations of past deeds. However, there is only one end for Jones toward redemption and forgiveness; and the production punctuates his fall with a tragic and just conclusion.
Jones’ devolution spiraling and shrinking downward into a primordial state, stripped of the pompous “royal” costume he wore at the play’s outset is stunning thanks to Abili’s poignant, ferocious portrayal. The gyrating fearsome ensemble replete with masks, suggestively symbolic costumes and the atmospheric darkness and light reflected in the flow of the dance, the thrumming music and the inevitability of the drum beats pulsing terror in Jones’ imagination gradually herald his decline. Without the innovative, sterling efforts of the design team (Charlie Corcoran, Antonia Ford-Roberts, Whitney Locher, Brian Nason, Ryan Rumery, M. Florian Staab, Bob Flanagan, Christian Frederickson), this production would have none of the luster or sanctity of O’Neill’s play; nor would the themes be so incredibly manifested and breathtaking as they indeed are.
In the last scene of Jones’ finality, I found an irony of hope. His subjects sustained his torment and finally came to the end of themselves in an action which proclaimed they had had enough. How they effect with mystical power Jones’ self-destruction is one for the ages and indeed, reminiscent of what has occurred with dictators and despots overthrown by citizen advocates throughout history. However, whether the population and culture will be able to rule themselves after Jones’ corrupted leadership and their ruined social state have been recovered is less hopeful. It has been said that people choose their leaders unwisely out of fear and desperation often making their own situation much worse. Inevitably, they choose or sanction the leaders they deserve until they explode under the steaming pressure. The tragedy is that the ones not choosing or supporting the despots are swept up in the debacle.
O’Reilly’s production subtly recalls many themes about leadership, power, the brutalizing nature of oppression begetting oppression and the necessity of citizen self-reflection, self-control and self-evolution. It suggests that the inevitability of despotic overthrow happens in cyclical waves in countries steeped in the history of revolution. Such revolt is built into the fabric of the society and will erupt again when the next corrupt, power-usurping ruler or foreign power enforces its “novel” brand of oppression.
The Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of The Emperor Jones (132 West 22nd St.), has been extended to run through 21 May. It is a sleek 70 minutes with no intermission and is too good to miss.