The Emperor's New Race 

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"Niggers." It's the last word in Eugene O'Neill's 1920 play The Emperor Jones. The white man Smithers says it contemptuously, as the natives of the Caribbean island drag off the dead body of the jumped-up African-American ex-convict Brutus Jones who's made himself their tyrannical ruler. It's a word that defines the play and how people have seen it over the years.

Jones knows his reign, intended to make him rich (he's storing his money in an offshore bank), won't last forever, but he's not expecting the natives to become restless as soon as they do. He flees into the jungle, but there, to the pounding tom-tom of the angry oppressed subjects, he encounters his own fears, the ghost of a man he killed, and relives time on a prison chain gang. He also experiences memories that aren't his own: racial memories. He sees himself on a slave auction block. Going deeper, he finds himself caught in the horrors of the middle passage, with mournful singing going on all around him. A witch doctor draws him into a terrifying dance. He never makes it out of the forest, and the natives find their justice. It's a bit like an episode of The Twilight Zone, but theatrical, poetically written, and politically challenging.

O'Neill's play was groundbreaking in its time, visually, theatrically and intellectually—he used masks, sound and lights and other effects to create an Expressionistic world that reflected Brutus' savage nightmare. It was also groundbreaking for casting a Black actor in a starring role. It's not a one-man play—in fact, to do it as O'Neill wrote it requires quite a large cast. At Irish Repertory Theater (through November 29), many of the small parts called for in the jungle are played by puppets created by Bob Flanagan, who designed the masks and puppets for the Broadway hit show Wicked. O'Neill's reliance on contemporary psychological ideas about collective consciousness were also revolutionary.

While O'Neill is not quite the "father of American theatre" that he often gets named (let's face it, without Susan Glaspell, who produced him at Provincetown Playhouse, we would never have heard of O'Neill, though ironically now, few have heard of Glaspell, not to mention that there have been American playwrights at least since 1787), he did push the boundaries of what theatre could do.

Yet odds are you've never seen a production of this play done straight, without irony, without a layer of directorial attitude. O'Neill wrote in dialect, and in a play that features a black man so prominently, the use of the dialect can feel uncomfortable. The Wooster Group did a famous production of the play in 2005 in which Kate Valk played the title role in blackface—thus putting quotation marks around the play, acknowledging contemporary sensibilities and broadening its identity politics to include gender. Speaking the collective consciousness of an ethnic group as written by someone outside of it without noting the inherent problems of the text would probably not go down very well in 2009.

The production currently running at Irish Repertory Theater deals with these challenges in thoughtful and engaging ways. It engages the attention of the audience with a vivid design, and engages with the text itself. Ciaran O'Reilly, Producing Director of the theater, has directed strong productions of O'Neill before, including a striking production of The Hairy Ape in 2006. Eugene O'Neill was of Irish descent, but there are no Irish characters in the play. The other white character, Jones' henchman and sometime partner in crime, is Cockney (played vigorously by Rick Foucheux, whose accent wanders into Australian at times).

But the Irishness of this play comes through vividly. Remember that scene in the 1991 movie The Commitments in which Jimmy Rabbitte takes John Lennon's song "Woman is the Nigger of the World," and changes it to the Irish? "The Irish are the niggers of Europe, lads?"

O'Neill beat him to it. Actually, in the late 19th century and early 20th, the Irish were called "White niggers." The cartoons of Thomas Nast in the late nineteenth century, that O'Neill would have grown up with (O'Neill was born in 1888, died in 1953), portrayed the Irish as brutes, savages, the "missing link" between ape and human. The Emperor Jones as coded Irishman seems less of a stretch—not a vilification of a black man or black culture.

In fact, we learn during the play that Jones' corruption is caused by years of listening to rich white man, and before that, from being oppressed (while in prison for a crime he did commit, to boot) by brutal white men—he really is a victim of his society. "Colonialism" wasn't an academic term in play in 1920, nevertheless The Emperor Jones demonstrates the evils of a system based on oppressors and victims, and victims who aspire to become oppressors. If anybody knew a little bit about being oppressed and turning oppressor, it was the Irish. I talked to O'Reilly and John Douglas Thompson, the African-American actor who powerfully and passionately plays the mammoth role of Emperor Jones, after a matinee last week. Thompson had another show to do that night, but he seemed invigorated, not exhausted, though in need of water. As we talked, crew searched around the stage for Jones' prop ring, which had fallen somewhere off the stage during the performance.

Both men have ready answers to how the play really is Irish—and simultaneously pan-human. For O'Reilly, there are political and historical similarities.

"The Irish were major victims of colonialism for so long, in servitude. They didn't have the graphic journey of slavery but often it was close to it, they were starved and millions died, they weren't allowed to own their own homes, their language was taken from them, they were displaced by Cromwell to the Western rocky part of country all around the same time as the middle passage…"

click to enlarge The Emperor Jones at Irish Rep

Thompson points out: "There's a certain poetry in it. That's a hallmark of Irish playwriting." It's an insightful comment—O'Neill's use of dialect, for Cockney Smithers, ex-con Jones, and the pidgin English of the natives, is as poetic as that of the Irish peasants in the work of John Millington Synge.

It's also hard not to see an Irish-American's contempt for Catholicism implied in the way Jones' terrified prayers don't work, but tribal magic seems to. "I's after the coin and I lays my Jesus on the shelf for the time being," Jones admits to Smithers. Later on, as he shoots at "haunts" and visions, he calls on Jesus for help and gets none.

Thompson suggests: "Maybe one of the messages is that certain people can't be saved, and don't deserve redemption."

Both Thompson and O'Reilly find an ecumenical message in the play—it's not about African-Americans and native people, but could be about any ethnic group. I'm not so sure of that. Inasmuch as it calls for the use of masks, tom-tom drumming beat, tribal magic, it seems to be drawing on a certain exoticism, or an Orientalist use of non-western cultures as a place where primal forces become real. It seems particularly anti-European in some of its points, and romanticizes certain aspects of the native cultures. It reminds me a bit of E.M. Forster's portrayal of how white people see native culture in A Passage to India, or the trope of the inscrutable Chinaman in many a movie.

All of that is another way of saying ultimately that it's a very white play. But considering it a psychological study lifts the play out of the specific, and that universality was what ultimately prompted Thompson to accept the role.

"I didn't really know about the play," Thompson said. "When I first read it, I couldn't fully understand it. It was almost like reading Shakespeare, sometimes I need to take several swipes at it. I knew there was something interesting there, but couldn't quite find it through the text that was right there in front of me. Then I researched O'Neill and his influences on creating it—Karl Jung, Joseph Conrad who wrote Heart of Darkness, the Expressionistic movement that he was trying to start here in this country that was primarily an Eastern European thing, Pullman Porters that created the black middle class and where those people came from and how that all developed…"

O'Neill might have thought of Jones as a symbolic Irishman, but he did create a specific story for Jones that was plausible for its time—including the detail that Jones had worked for ten years as a Pullman Porter.

"Having Jones be a Pullman Porter and what that really means is interesting," Thompson explained. "There's a strange dichotomy… on the one hand it was a preferred job in the African-American community, but on the other, it was like indentured servitude, another form of slavery, dressed up with a uniform and a salary. They had to work 400 hours a month before they could get their paycheck, they were never called by their own name, always called George, they were treated poorly. George Pullman, who created Pullman cars, wanted ex-slaves because they would fit this particular function best. My whole take was that Brutus was ex-slave. He was a Pullman Porter, who didn't like one minute of his time as a porter. He learned some things, but almost in spite of himself. Capitalism, colonialism and slavery are the three social forces in Brutus Jones' life."

Many people who have only read the play may be put off by the dialect. It's a tough play to read, partly because of the phonetic representation of dialect and also because, as the play goes on and Jones encounters visions of his past, there's little dialogue and mostly just stage directions. O'Reilly pointed out that O'Neill used dialect for everyone: "He wrote Irish dialect, like 'sure' and 'begorrah.'"

When, early on, Jones talks to his feet it feels a bit like a Stepin Fetchit moment, minstrelsy routines of the cowardly black man (think "Feet, do your duty" by Mantan Moreland in the Charlie Chan movies, or the riffs of Amos 'n' Andy in the 20s radio show), but O'Reilly suggests that's actually Jones making fun of the stereotype, "just as in our work we can make fun of the 'paddy mick' stuff."

Is the dialect why people feel so uneasy about the play? "I think it's white guilt," said O'Reilly, and Thompson laughed in agreement. "They can't look at it in the face for what it is. Anybody who really looks at the play can't think for a minute that O'neill was trying to diminish black people."

Thompson concurs: "This is a great piece of art and I sense the humanity in it. In the past when the play was first done people had a different view of it. Over the course of time the context completely changed, and as a result we hardly see productions. We have statements when people read the play, think this play can't be done, look at it, look at it on the page. I hope our production adds to the greater debate, yes this play can be done, it has wonderful things in it, it's great opportunity for an actor in it, great opportunity for a theatre to work with this whole Expressionism and do some really interesting things."

In its day, The Emperor Jones might have been seen as an accurate representation of the black and white races, even though nobody on stage comes across very well. Certainly the "primitive" native people are presented as gullible in their belief that Jones could only be killed by a silver bullet (a fib he tells them earlier when a bullet misses him). There's no evidence that O'Neill was deliberately challenging stereotypes—and yet watching it, it seems a clear indictment of the white society that has created Jones. In fact, the first time Jones addresses Smithers, he calls him "white man."

Thompson suggests that Jones "keeps Smithers around to keep him as a whipping boy or punching bag to express that level of frustration and anger, otherwise he would have kept him way earlier. I came in and took over Smithers' business. I say 'Listen if you took the time to learn their language you could steal more! I took the time to learn their language and culture and that's why I am where I'm at!' It's all part of the psychological game."

click to enlarge The Emperor Jones at Irish Rep

Asked if he felt uneasy as a white man directing this play taking on a black racial past, in an era where identity politics are so sensitive, O'Reilly said, "It didn't. I just did not see that's where O'Neill was coming from… call me insensitive. Of course, I was really, really interested to know what John was going to think, that was huge."

Thompson based his characterization on Jack Johnson, "who I think of as a man too big for the world he inhabited." He also thought about Paul Robeson, who played the role in the 1933 movie, and Charles Sidney Gilpin, who first played the role. "I keep him in my consciousness, in remembrance of who he was and hopefully can conjure his spirit to be where I'm at."

If that sounds a bit like the race memory portrayed in the play, well, both Thompson and O'Reilly said they believe in it. "It's human DNA is what it is," said O'Reilly.

O'Reilly's production used innovative masks, people in tree suits, menacing puppets to express the terrors of Jones' journey. Honestly, though, on some level even the most scary of puppets are always a little bit cute. When you see people in tree suits, it's hard not to think of The Wizard of Oz. The puppets of different sizes who became the white bystanders at a slave auction were truly creepy, but the skeletal puppet representing the ghost of Jeff, and the puppet dice hovering in the air, had a goofy sort of appeal. Similarly, the crocodile god was rather sweet. But the sound effects and lighting and especially the mournful slave singing were sad and frightening. "I felt every aspect of the design was a character in the play, the sound, puppets, masks," said O'Reilly.

Most frightening, to me, was Sinclair Mitchell, the witch doctor—a live actor, dancing African steps choreographed by Barry McNabb. As the witch doctor draws Jones in, the result is truly creepy. Thompson and O'Reilly chuckled, because how and for how long Jones becomes drawn into the dance was something they wrestled with in rehearsal—at first they weren't going to do it, but they talked about it because it was in O'Neill's stage directions.

Those directions have been "a bible, it's strange to say," said O'Reilly, noting that usually the first thing an actor would do is cross them out. Thompson laughed and noted that they got into trouble whenever they strayed from the stage directions. At one point, Thompson was "boogieing a little too much," said O'Reilly, and they laughed. "Now," said Thompson, "I bow, becoming a subject, that I've made the people become."

For Thompson, Jones is absolutely heroic. "In another world, another time, if someone could have spent some time with him… if he could have gone to Harvard business school…"—"or studied Constitutional law!" O'Reilly chimes in—"just look where he could have been…just imagine what he could have accomplished!"

(photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

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