Originally published in Paste Magazine
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The steady beat of tom-toms seems go on for eternity in the breathtakingly realized production of The Emperor Jones at off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre. Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly and starring the compelling Obi Abili in the title role, Eugene O’Neill’s play from 1920 possesses a timeless resonance, much like the tom-toms that sound persistently throughout the production.
It’s questions of power-who possess it and who utilizes it to suppress others—that drive this play, which, in 65 minutes, addresses questions that have persisted for centuries—especially the near-century since the show first premiered in New York. Brutus Jones, a black American man and former Pullman Porter who was imprisoned for murdering someone, is the one with power at the beginning of the story. After escaping prison by way of murdering a guard, he fled to a West Indian island where he rose to become a military despot, telling his subjects he can only be killed by a silver bullet.
But his power is not eternal. A rebellion is approaching, as his confidante, a white trader Smithers by played by Andy Murray, is told. They both hear it coming as the beat of the tom-toms gets closer, and Jones escapes into the jungle with his gun and six bullets – five for enemies and one for himself, should he need it. But he is not alone in his flight; memories of his victims and the crimes he committed join him onstage by the skilled company of actors who play a Witch Doctor and ghosts of the two men he killed as well as the nightmarish inhabitants of the jungle, brought to life by Bob Flanagan’s inventive puppets.
It’s unclear if these creatures actually there or merely figments of Jones’ disintegrating mental state as this unreliable narrator plunges further and further into the jungle. One by one, he wastes his bullets on the visions, eventually questioning if he should use the silver bullet on himself. The menacing landscape, with trees that seem to come to life and envelop him, giant slugs and hallucinations of slave auctions are illustrated through richly textured costumes by Antonia Ford-Roberts and Whitney Locher, sound design by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab and choreography by Barry McNabb. Abili gives a captivating performance as his character is reduced from swaggering bravado to desperate isolation and insanity in the wilderness. Despite the artistic puppets and costumes onstage, it is difficult drag one’s eyes away from him.
It’s been 97 years since the The Emperor Jones was first performed and the play feels perhaps even more resonant today. Following the ongoing crisis of police shootings and heightened awareness of racial profiling, while it’s hard to sympathize with Jones’ actions, it is not difficult to keep in mind what he endured in the United States – let alone play’s subjects of tyranny and despotic rulers.
This isn’t the first time Jones’ throne has taken up residence at the Irish Rep. A production was performed in 2009, also directed by O’Reilly and starring John Douglas Thompson. Eight years later, the play’s resonance takes on a poignant meaning as Jones asks, “Ain’t I the emperor? The laws don’t go for him.”