Eugene O'Neill's drama "The Emperor Jones" is an unexpectedly pungent example of the work he did during his foray into expressionism in the 1920s. During that time, he detoured from the intensely personal point of view -- born of his own family conflicts -- that colors his most famous plays. For that reason, it is important for O'Neill fans to see this play.
For others, "The Emperor Jones" is notable because it marked the first time a mainstream American playwright had written a play designed to star a black actor. This is not classic work on a level with O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" or "Long Day's Journey Into Night." As performed by Arlington's The American Century Theater, however, it is creatively staged and completely engaging.
"The Emperor Jones" is a short (80 minutes) but intense drama written in 1921. It is equal parts expressionist tragedy and "Twilight Zone" thriller. Built mostly on monologue, it is a study of a powerful but tragically flawed man who disintegrates in the face of his personal demons. It is also a racially charged spectacle so politically incorrect that this may be the only opportunity you'll ever have to see it performed.
Stage and television actor Bus Howard (HBO's "The Wire") stars as Brutus Jones, a black American expatriate who tyrannically rules a Caribbean island until the islanders turn on him and he begins to unravel. "The Emperor Jones" was a sensation when it debuted on Broadway at the height of Jim Crow racism, and O'Neill's portrait of this Pullman porter-turned murderous escaped convict is rife with unpleasant stereotypes audiences now find offensive, particularly Brutus's naked contempt for the displaced Africans he rules. But director Ed Bishop believes this character study was a revolutionary statement for its time and that Brutus is primarily a man who understands the realities of his place in the world.
Howard's performance is a tour de force, although he avoids going over the top as Jones abandons his palace and makes an overnight getaway through a dense jungle, where he faces his past victims and his inner fears, all rendered in three-dimensional form in the dark. The once arrogant emperor finds his facade being shredded as the long night progresses to meet dawn's light. Howard capably handles the character's degeneration, although he is hampered by the fact that O'Neill offers few clues to the man's essence. His crimes, while vile, don't quite seem to measure up to the stuff of great tragedy or to have brought on such a terrifying fight for his soul. But Howard works hard to make Brutus a singular character, more universally allegorical than specifically black American. That keeps a veil of racism from obscuring the play's themes. John Tweel assists as a cynical Cockney overseer, and Bishop has created an extremely effective, dozen-member ensemble of actors and dancers to bring to life the ghosts and "formless fears" that haunt Brutus.
Bishop is devoted to reviving important plays centering on the black American experience that may no longer get stage time because of changing social tastes, and he should be thanked for rescuing this one.
Much credit must go to the design team for an unusually striking experience that supports and amplifies O'Neill's expressionist story. Dance and synchronized movement choreographed by Patricia Buignet and Anthony Rollins-Mullens create a mystical ambience, and the "formless fears" creeping through the dark clad in Rip Claassens's costumes generate scalp-tingling unease. The audience is thrust into the creepy jungle night by Thomas B. Kennedy's imaginative, wrap-around scenic design, Ann Marie Castrigno's dramatic lighting, and Keith Bell's extremely evocative sound effects. It's a tactile and emotional experience. "The Emperor Jones" rules.
"The Emperor Jones, " performed by The American Century Theater, continues through July 23 at Gunston Arts Center's Theater Two, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Showtime is 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, with a matinee at 2:30 p.m. this Sundayand July 23. Call 703-553-8782 or visit www.americancentury.org for information and reservations.