By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Ain’t a man’s talkin’ big what makes him big-long as he makes folks believe it? [Sure], I talks large when I ain’t got nothin’ to back it up, but I ain’t talkin’ wild just [the] same. I knows I kin fool ’em—I knows it—and [that’s] backin’ enough [for] my game.” – Brutus Jones
It is not easy to watch Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones,” the groundbreaking 1920 play currently running at the Irish Repertory Theatre. The connections to the current political climate in the United States are remarkable and somewhat frightening. The machinations in Washington and those in a West Indian palace in 1915 reverberate with familiar chords of civic discord.
Former Pullman porter Brutus Jones (Obi Abili) emigrates to an island in the West Indies, overthrows the island’s chief Lem (played with the perfect vengeful core by Carl Hendrick Louis) and, with the assistance of Cockney trader Henry Smithers (played with privileged arrogance by Andy Murray), establishes himself as the undisputed Emperor of the island. Emperor Jones arrives with a rather checkered past: he murdered his friend Jeff – with a “razor cut” – after a fight over a game of dice. “I knows I done wrong,” Jones confesses, “I knows it! When I [caught] Jeff cheatin’ [with] loaded dice my anger overcomes me and I kills him dead!” Unwilling to spend his full twenty-year sentence in prison, Jones hits the chain-gang guard with his shovel and escapes. Crooked Jones – undeterred by his own probable enslavement – subjects the islanders to oppression and demagoguery.
Despite Emperor Jones’s skullduggery, his “subjects” tire of his abuse and conspire to “catch” him and kill him. “The Emperor Jones” follows the dictator’s path after he discovers his time is almost up and he flees his palace leaving Smithers behind. Under Ciarán O’Reilly’s inventive direction, Obi Abili delivers an engaging adrenaline-driven performance as the Emperor on the run for his life. The actor successfully embodies the psychological and physical unraveling of a despot determined to cheat defamation and death. Mr. O’Reilly has chosen to “cast” the scenes from Brutus Jones’s past with puppets and masks (designed by Bob Flanagan) and trees moved about the stage by the remarkable ensemble cast (choreographed by Barry McNabb). Charlie Corcoran’s set is a stunning representation of the mindscape of madness with its crevices eerily illuminated by Brian Nason.
As the rhythm of the drum beat changes from the normal heart rate of seventy-two beats per minute to an earsplitting cadency, Brutus Jones’s chances of escaping the restless residents of the island diminish. The former Emperor is forced to come to terms with his past and – after a high-spirited dance by the Witch Doctor (played with a mesmerizing spirit by Sinclair Mitchell) – he refuses to offer himself to the crocodile (Reggie Talley) as the sacrifice needed to atone for his “sins” and completely empties his revolver and flees. Eventually he is captured, killed, and at dawn returned to the edge of the Great Forest.
“The Emperor Jones,” despite its rich themes and enduring questions, is not without problems. In his efforts to address the evils of racism, Eugene O’Neill resorts to language that is racist (this is not the colloquial diction of Zora Neale Hurston) and a purely psychological reading of the play is problematic. Seen through the political critical lens, however, the play provides a treasure trove of redemptive conversation concerning the dangers of autocracy and despotism. Emperor Jones exhibits narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity, the authoritarian mandate, and likely could be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (DSM IV 301.81). Images of tyrants from the past (and present) with that same disorder ricochet off the Forest’s “creatures of the night” and warn those “with eyes to see and ears to hear” to remain ever vigilant.