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Paulanne Simmons

"The Emperor Jones" Brings New Royalty to the Irish Rep Stage

"The Emperor Jones"
Directed by Ciaran O'Reilly The Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 32nd Street
Opened Oct. 18, 2009
Wed. – Sat. 8 p.m., 3 p.m. matinees on Wed., Sat., and Sun.
No performance Nov. 26 and an additional performance Nov. 24 at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $65, $55 (212) 727-2737 or www.irishrep.org
Extended to Dec. 6, 2009
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons

John Douglas Thompson as Brutus Jones in Eugene O'Neill's "The
Emperor Jones" at Irish Repertory Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

"The Emperor Jones" was not only one of Eugene O'Neill's earliest experiments with expressionistic theater; it was also the first play on Broadway with a racially integrated cast. It was O'Neill himself who set the stage.

Although previously black roles had been played by white men in blackface, O'Neill insisted that the lead role of Brutus Jones be played by the black actor Charles Gilpin when the play was staged by the Provincetown Players at the Playwright's Theater in 1920. Since that time some of the greatest black actors have tackled the role, including Paul Robeson and Ossie Davis.

John Douglas Thompson, who plays Jones in the Irish Repertory's revival, can stand tall with the best of his predecessors. Thompson's Brutus Jones is powerful, conniving, ruthless and, ultimately, tragic when he is defeated by the natives and his own demons. His physical struggle is so intense one feels fatigue along with catharsis by the time Jones lies dead on the stage.

But as marvelous as Jones is, he is not the whole story in this extraordinary production. Dick Foucheux certainly holds his own as Henry Smithers, the cockney trader who both fears and envies Jones. After all, Smithers has only been able to cheat the natives; Jones has managed to convince them that he has magical powers which make him invincible and set himself up as emperor. It is Foucheux's scenes with Thompson that set the groundwork for the emperor's eventual fall.

John Douglas Thompson as Brutus Jones in "The Emperor Jones." Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Charlie Corcoran's set, Antonia Ford-Roberts's costumes and Bob Flanagan's magnificent puppets and masks give a stunningly unique meaning to the term expressionism. With Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson's original music and sound design they exquisitely capture the increasing terror Jones feels as he realizes he is lost and doomed in the jungle.

And of course, director Ciaran O'Reilly has put all these elements together to create a theater experience that is both dramatically and visually remarkable.

In "The Emperor Jones," O'Neill was trying to capture the conscience of one person as well as a people. Thus as Jones makes his way frantically through the jungle, he relives through his tormented imagination not only his own past but also the history of his people, who were taken from their native Africa, brought to America and sold as slaves.

In today's environment, when a black man sits in the White House, not all black actors or white directors want to recall the unpleasantness of the past. Nor are they eager to present a play which shows a black man exploiting other blacks.

O'Reilly, Thompson, indeed The Irish Repertory Theatre all deserve credit for the courage that went along with their creativity. They saw that Brutus Jones is not a man to be scorned or trifled with. His cunning exists alongside strength and resilience. He is a tragic figure. His demons are not far from the demons that plague us all. And if his struggle and death cannot be mourned, they can most certainly be respected.

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