The Emperor’s New Race

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

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√Ę€”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.”