"Ihave always felt guilty that a theater with our mission has not done more O'Neill," American Century Theater Artistic Director Jack Marshall says. The Arlington troupe, which revives rarely done American plays, is presenting Eugene O'Neill's 1921 expressionist drama "The Emperor Jones" through July 23 at the Gunston Arts Center.

After the company's success a couple of seasons back with Sophie Treadwell's "Machinal," Marshall thought "The Emperor Jones" would offer a similarly satisfying challenge. Expressionist plays of the early 20th century, with their avant-garde manifestations of characters' thoughts and fears, "give a lot of opportunities to directors and designers" to experiment, he says.

Bus Howard, whom longtime viewers of HBO's "The Wire" will recognize as Ott and who appeared in "Polk County" and "The Great White Hope" at Arena Stage, plays the title character, Brutus Jones. A former Pullman porter and convicted murderer, Jones escaped a chain gang and fled to a Caribbean island, where he bamboozled the gullible locals, became their much-feared emperor and robbed them blind. As the play opens, his "subjects" have had enough and Jones prepares to make a run for it. His guilt and paranoia materialize from the jungle as shadowy phantoms.

Howard says rehearsals with director Ed Bishop became an investigation into how someone like Jones, who came from a background of relative privilege compared with the islanders, could, as Howard puts it, "dog someone else. What is in their character that allows that to happen?" That, Howard says, is "the darkness of the human spirit that O'Neill is looking at."

The actor ascribes some of Jones's behavior to the brutal legacy of slavery. "When he gets the opportunity to become the leader . . . everybody else is going to feel his wrath," Howard says. "It's an unfeeling, unflinching kind of arrogance that he has."

A source of controversy when it debuted, the play soon became a star vehicle for the legendary African American actor Paul Robeson. In the 1960s and after, Marshall says, its portrayal of a fatally flawed black antihero speaking in a heavy dialect was condemned as racist.

Marshall argues that "O'Neill was making a much broader universal statement about the human state, about human hubris." Howard finds it remarkable that O'Neill "was able to capture the feeling of this man as an African American and then wrote this for an African American man [to portray] in 1920."

To handle the physicality of the role, the 6-foot-2 Howard began working out soon after he was cast. He lost 36 pounds, slimming down to 220.

During a family vacation, he memorized all his lines in the short but text-heavy piece, which is nearly a monologue.

"It is such a journey that he takes emotionally," Howard says. "I didn't want to be fighting the words when I came into rehearsal.

"Then you have all kinds of time to explore all types of different things. You can just stretch it and go as far out as you want to -- or as far in."

Theater Alliance Season

The Theater Alliance will open its new season at the H Street Playhouse with Moises Kaufman's fact-based drama "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" (Aug. 18-Sept. 18). Artistic Director Jeremy Skidmore recently guest-directed the play at his alma mater, the North Carolina School of the Arts.

"I fell in love with it unlike any play I'd read in a long time," he says. That prompted him to do it at the H Street, too.

"I don't feel like I'm doing it again. I feel like I'm continuing. I haven't really put it down," Skidmore adds.

The Obie-winning "You Are Here" (Oct. 13-Nov. 13) by Canadian performer-playwright Daniel MacIvor will be the Alliance's second show. Jennifer Mendenhall, Kathleen Coons and Michael Russotto will perform in the piece, set in the world of film and celebrity. Gregg Henry will direct.

"Haroun and the Sea of Stories" (March 2-April 2, 2006) will offer a fantasy for audiences 12 and older, Skidmore says. Staged by director-choreographer Kelly Parsley, it is based on Salman Rushdie's book about a storyteller whose sadness robs him of the power to spin tales, and his son, who goes off in search of the storied sea.

The Alliance's repertory of experimental productions and new works, cumulatively titled the Pangea Projects, begins with Lee Blessing's "Two Rooms" (April 21-May 28, 2006), about a man taken hostage in Beirut and his wife, who sits in her Virginia living room trying to sense what he is going through. Shirley Serotsky will direct.

"The Monument" (May 19-June 4, 2006) by Colleen Wagner looks at a soldier facing execution for war crimes and the mysterious woman who offers him freedom, with a catch. John Vreeke will direct the U.S. premiere of the award-winning Canadian play. Mendenhall will head the cast.

Other Pangea Projects will include the debut of a solo piece, "Dis' My Mayorship" by actor Michael Anthony Williams, about Washington's mayor (who shares two-thirds of the actor's name), an International Dance Jam and five "fully staged" workshops of new plays.

Skidmore says he hopes to expand the season at the H Street Playhouse to "where we're in there all of the time." With the new, multi-use Atlas Performing Arts Center a few doors down, the 1300 block of H Street NE is metamorphosing into a mini-arts district.

Follow Spots

* Olney Theatre Center for the Arts will christen its outdoor amphitheater for summer Shakespeare with a free production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," tomorrow through July 3. The play is performed by members of Olney's young professional touring company, the National Players, and students from the professional theater program at Boston University, where Olney Artistic Director Jim Petosa teaches. Reservations are suggested. Call 301-924-3400.

* Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has reconfigured part of its 2005-06 season after acquiring the long-awaited rights to "After Ashley." Gina Gionfriddo's play about reality TV and the public airing of private tragedies will open the season, Sept. 5-Oct. 9. Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz will direct. The previously announced opener, Bridget Carpenter's "The Faculty Room," will run March 27-April 30, 2006. The world premiere of David Grimm's "Steve & Idi" will be held until the next season.

Jeremy Skidmore will direct "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," which launches the Theater Alliance's upcoming season in August."It is such a journey that he takes emotionally," Bus Howard says of the despotic title character he plays in "The Emperor Jones."