The last time the Irish Repertory Theatre staged Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play The Emperor Jones, an expressionist one-act on racial themes, Barack Obama had just been elected America’s first black president. That 2009 production is currently being revived downtown, and though director Ciarán O’Reilly doesn’t stress the work’s topicality, there’s no denying its double-edged content has only grown sharper as our national dialogue about race has morphed to include Black Lives Matter, Jeff Sessions, and Dana Schutz.
The play’s black protagonist, Brutus Jones, a former Pullman car porter, starts the show as the tyrant emperor of a small Caribbean island where he washed ashore after escaping a chain gang in the States. He has seized power only recently, but his subjects have already tired of his corruption and are preparing his overthrow. Jones attempts to flee his enemies by night through the jungle, but suffers mounting exhaustion and delirium until the forest transforms into a terrifying memory theater of sorts. Hallucinated visions of his violent past and America’s racist history rise like ghosts from beyond the grave, pursuing him to his fateful end.
O’Neill’s script has courted controversy since the beginning for its use of “black” racial dialect. Having learned early on the cruel conundrum that petty thefts earn men jail time while massive thefts earn them power, Jones attributes this cynical knowledge to overhearing wealthy American capitalists chatting on the train: “If dey’s one thing I learns in ten years on de Pullman ca’s listenin’ to de white quality talk, it’s dat same fact.” The role’s originator, Charles Gilpin, so objected to this racial coding that he parted ways with O’Neill, while his replacement, the famed Paul Robeson, tried to downplay it. But if Emperor Jones calls to mind minstrel-speak, the play also aims to depict Jones as a figure of staggering humanity — a conflicted character on the order of Othello or Lear — struggling against American slavery’s long afterlife.
The Irish Rep production avoids critiquing O’Neill’s text but still gives it an insightful, disturbing reading. As Jones, Obi Abili stalks and rasps about the stage with mesmerizing focus and intensity, increasingly bathed in sweat while he undergoes the tyrant’s extended passion, a trial as harrowing psychologically as it is physically. In scene one, he recalls subduing the island’s natives by cracking his whip; he repeats the gesture over and over again with unhinged ferocity, throwing his entire body into the act. It’s an unnerving image that crystallizes the drama’s central themes and the character’s contradictions at once: a black man who has known the sting of the white man’s lash, repeating that violence, inflicting it upon others, but only after having internalized it.
Through the rest of the show, Abili gives an unflinching performance as O’Neill’s splintering sovereign. O’Reilly’s production surrounds him with a whirlwind of scenic effects that externalize his tortured mental state — stick puppets, marionettes, and masked bogeymen, all of which make the show feel more like a haunted house than an expressionist parable. But Abili shines through all this distracting cheesiness, creating a troubling portrait of Jones that sticks in the mind — and the gut.
The Emperor Jones
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Through May 21