Volume 75, Number 38 | February 8 -14 2006

Theater

The emperor’s new clothes

THE EMPEROR JONES
By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Arthur Adair
February 2-12 at the La MaMa Annex
66 East 4th Street (box office at 74-A East 4th Street)
(212-475-7710; lamama.org)

Photo by Jonathan Slaff

Xander Gaines as Brutus Jones in Arthur Adair’s staging at La MaMa of Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 “The Emperor Jones.”

By JERRY TALLMER

[The general] enters from the right. He is a tall, powerfully-built, full-blooded negro of middle-age … [There] is something decidedly distinctive about his face – an underlying strength of will, a hardy, self-reliant confidence in himself that inspires respect. His eyes are alive with a keen, cunning intelligence. In manner he is shrewd, suspicious, evasive. He wears a light blue uniform coat sprayed with brass buttons, heavy gold chevrons on his shoulders, gold braid on the collar, cuffs, etc. His pants are bright red with a light blue stripe down the side. Patent leather laced boots with brass spurs, and a belt with a long-barreled, pearl-handled revolver complete his makeup. Yet there is something not altogether ridiculous about his grandeur. He has a way of carrying it off.

— Stage direction, Scene One, “The Emperor Jones”

Papa Doc? Idi Amin?

No, this is Brutus Jones, sometime Pullman porter, sometime killer of an opponent in a crap game, who now, in some distant venue of palm trees, mountains, and jungle — dark, brooding jungle — has set up rule as a much-feared royal dictator, complete with palace, gaudy throne, and a toady, seedy Englishman named Smithers as his treacherous aide-de-camp.

On November 1, 1920, a drama called “The Emperor Jones” opened in a Provincetown Players production at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse. The star was a black actor named Charles S. Gilpin, the playwright was 32-year-old Eugene O’Neill. The event is often looked upon as the birth of serious American theater … but … but …

Five years later “The Emperor Jones” had a brief (28 performances) revival at a playhouse on 52nd Street, this time with none other than proud, powerful Paul Robeson as the tinhorn Emperor, and when Hollywood got around to the movie version eight years later, in 1933, the star was once again Paul Robeson (with Dudley Digges as Smithers).

Seventy-one years after that — i.e., a few months ago — 34-year-old Arthur Adair, an actor and director who has often worked as one or the other at Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa Experimental Theater Club on East 4th Street, walked into the Ottendorfer Branch of Public Library on Second Avenue, looking at random for a video to watch that night. He saw one marked “Emperor Jones” — a film and play he knew little or nothing about – and grabbed it.

“I still had it in my hand when I walked down to La MaMa,” Adair said the other day, “and Ellen said: ‘What’s that?’ ”

Did Ellen know the play?

“I’m not quite sure. Ellen works in mysterious ways. You’re never sure what she knows and doesn’t know. Anyway, Ellen looked at it and said: ‘Baby, I think you should watch that tonight.’ So I did.”

The result is what is billed as “A Re-Envisioning of the Legend of ‘The Emperor Jones,’ ” directed by Arthur Adair, performed by Xander Gaines (Jones), Brian P. Glover (Smithers), and Sheila Dabney (everything else), February 2-12 at La MaMa Annex, 66 East 4th Street.

Now for the but … but …

What the writer/playgoer you are here reading has never been able to figure out, from the day he first read “The Emperor Jones,” is just where this play sits vis-a-vis the borderline between racist stereotyping and theatrical pattern-smashing. Note the small “n” of “Negro” in the excerpt at the head of this article from O’Neill’s vivid stage directions. And that’s the least of the caricaturing and condescension toward this black man in his gold braid.

One thinks of Idi Amin & Co., and Joseph Conrad, and also of the ferocious movie “The Dogs of War” in which Christopher Walken as a soldier of fortune wipes out just such a black tyrant along with various whites (Smithers types, but richer) who hired Walken to do it.

I mean, how did Paul Robeson, that unpurchasable, fearless black man who one day would stand up to HUAC, the State Department, the president, and everybody else, see fit to put himself into the body and eventual Steppin’ Fetchit words — “Oh Lawd, Lawd! Oh Lawd, Lawd!” — of the Pullman porter who got too big for himself and ends up fleeing in terror through a jungle infested with Little Formless Fears to the ever louder pounding of heartbeat tom-toms.

It also, incidentally, all but wrecked Gilpin, who got more and more infuriated as he kept doing revivals of it.

Arthur Adair agrees with one’s doubts, or questions, in a manner of speaking.

“When I saw the movie,” he says, “I didn’t understand it at all. Couldn’t figure out if the Emperor was a good character or a bad character.” And he still can’t. “It’s a very ambiguous play.”

The movie — he considers it a pretty bad movie — puts in lots of the back story (Pullman porter, crap game) that’s only in the play as exposition, but leaves out two of Jones’s crucial race-memories, a slave ship and a slave auction. “And they don’t” — unlike the play — “use the word ‘nigger’ at all.”

What Adair did and does like about the 1933 film is the drumming that gets louder and louder and louder. “At La MaMa that probably will be me.”

Queens-born, Brooklyn College-educated Adair, product of “a hard-working white blue-collar family,” has always been deeply affected by the old Greeks — “Every time I’d say I don’t want to be in theater any more, an ‘Antigone’ or an ‘Oedipus’ would come along” — and sees a connection, or a parallel, between Brutus Jones and Oedipus. It’s why he wanted to tackle “Emperor Jones” at La MaMa. O’Neill, of course, was deeply indebted to those same old Greeks.

“When Oedipus and Brutus Jones confront their own actions, they see they have to take responsibility for those actions, and in the process they find out about themselves. Oedipus is not proud of what he’s done and Jones is not proud of what he’s done.”

Tall, black-bearded, straw-top thatched Arthur Adair, who lives in Brooklyn with his girlfriend Mickie Spencer — an interior designer and metal worker — has staged his own transliteration of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” and last year at La MaMa appeared as Jesus, opposite Brian Glover as Pilate, in Dario D’Ambrosi’s ultra-controversial “The Pathological Passion of the Christ.”

Which is soon to be a motion picture, shot all over this town. The only emperors in it — at long distance — are Roman.

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