The Emperor’s New Race

by |
10/27/2009 12:00 AM |

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…”