“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.