The Emperor’s New Race

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10/27/2009 12:00 AM |

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)