By Stanford Friedman
Ninety-seven years ago, Eugene O’Neill had his first Broadway hit. His masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, would not be penned for a couple more decades, but audiences of 1920 found plenty to wonder at in this short, experimental play that, given its exploration of nightmares, could have been called Long Night’s Journey Into Day. Instead, he named it The Emperor Jones. The title is a concise clue as to the subject matter, a low man in a high position. Plus we all know what happens to emperors, right? They fall. And this one falls hard. It’s a play that every O’Neill fan should see, and one could do worse than choosing The Irish Rep’s current production that offers plenty of compelling visuals, and a mostly powerful performance by its lead. Come for the history and morality lessons, stay for the terrifying puppets.
The first scene of Emperor Jones is one of the most blatantly expository in all of theater. In it, we meet Brutus Jones (Obi Abili), a criminal from America who is not only hiding out on an island in the West Indies, but has managed to become ruler over the local population of superstitious villagers. We also meet Henry Smithers (Andy Murray), a cockney trader who knows Jones’s game and is here to tell him that the gig is up, and that the villagers have had enough. It is a stiff opener with the two actors not helping matters much. Their chemistry is negligible and director Ciarán O’Reilly often has them roaming aimlessly around the stage.
But the following six scenes are meaty. Knowing it’s time to scoot, Jones makes his escape into the forest with nothing but his gun and six bullets. Cue the tom-tom drums. Their beat grows fast and loud becoming both the harbinger of villagers on attack and Jones’ own racing heart. He soon grows delusional, envisioning images from his own sordid past including time served on a chain gang, and pivotal moments of African culture including both a slave market and a Congo witch-doctor. These visions come to him in the form of puppets and masked dancers, all of whom are captivating. Time is not measured in hours, but in gun shots as Jones feverishly tries to kill off each successive vision. When his ammo is gone, he is done for.
Jones is a challenging role for any actor and Abili does bring the heat and the intensity if not an extreme emotional range. He fully owns the tricky dialog, written in a disturbing patois (“I hoofs it. Feet, do yo’ duty!”) and shows off a fine physicality in the fluid dance movements that choreographer Barry McNabb has added to his journey. If he is lacking chemistry at the opening, he has found the proper equation by his final scene: Being lost in the dark is the most elemental of fears. Racial oppression is the most scathing of societal ills. Abili stirs these two elements together in equal portion, and is driven mad.
THE EMPEROR JONES – by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly.
WITH: Obi Abili (Brutus Jones), Andy Murray (Henry Smithers), William Bellamy, Carl Hendrick Louis, Sinclair Mitchell, Angel Moore, and Reggie Talley.
Choreographer: Barry McNabb, Set Design: Charlie Corcoran, Costume Design: Antonia Ford-Roberts & Whitney Locher, Lighting Design: Brian Nason, Music by Christian Frederickson, Sound Design & Music: Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab, Puppet & Mask Design: Bob Flanagan, Production Stage Manager: Karen Evanouskas. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, https://irishrep.org/ 212.727.2737. Through April 23. Running time: 70 minutes.