I saw *The Emperor Jones* at the Irish Repertory Theatre on 5/6/17. This is an essential stop on my perusal through Eugene O'Neill - - he wrote it in 1920, the same year as *Anna Christie* and two years before *The Hairy Ape.* The thing I loved best about the play is that it was 65 minutes long! I feel like I spent as much time waiting in line at the men's room as I did watching the play.
The central character is Brutus Jones, an African-American man who worked as a Pullman porter, killed another man in a dice game, broke out of prison, somehow found his way to an island in the West Indies, and has conned the locals into believing that he has supernatural powers. They've crowned him as their emperor. Get a load of this quote (I'll reprint it as O'Neill's, with his spellings):
"Dere's little stealin...and dere's big stealin'... For de little stealin' dey gits you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin' dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall of Fame when you croaks."
Sends a shiver down the spine, no? Jones realizes that his number is up, revolution is brewing. SPOILER ALERT: He tries to escape, gets lost, and goes crazy. He has a number of hallucinations: in one he's on the auction block, being sold as a slave, in another he's in the cargo hold of a slave ship. These sequences were directed with a compelling creepiness by Ciarán O’Reilly.
Obi Abili played Jones. It's sort of a one-man show with other characters. He gave a powerful performance, I'd be interested in seeing him in something less weird. Clearly this was experimental theatre, and early on the scales were tipping more towards "experimental" than towards "theatre," but O'Neill and O'Reilly brought it across. One more note: O'Neill uses the N word quite a lot. It's a word that never loses its power.
I'm glad to check it off my O'Neill list, I don't feel like I need to see it again. I'd love to see *A Moon for the Misbegotten* and you know that I say a daily prayer that I'll get to see Cate Blanchett in a production of *Strange Interlude.* There's a production of *Mourning Becomes Electra* playing in town right now, but I'm going to skip it. I saw the opera, and that was more than enough.