It's been nearly a century since Eugene O'Neil's “The Emperor Jones” debuted on Broadway, featuring the first black actor in America in a starring role and crediting O'Neill his fame. The Poughkeepsie-based New Day Repertory Company, which began as an all-black troupe in 1963, is now tackling this controversial drama in a three-day stand at the Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center this month.
The original 1920 performance set a precedent when O'Neill demanded the black actor, Charles Sidney Gilpin, play the role of Brutus Jones (black roles were traditionally played by white actors in garish “black-face”). The play teeters between degrading and intellectual—Gilpin eventually leaving due to the play's frequent use of the word “nigger.” But O'Neill refused to omit it. He felt its use was consistent with his dramatic intentions—intentions that have been countlessly debated: from an antique view of the black man's burden to O'Neill's take on Jungian ideas of the collective unconscious.
“The Emperor Jones” follows Brutus Jones, convicted murderer, who has escaped from a chain gang and declared himself king of a Caribbean island. After a rebellion Jones flees through the jungle and consequently into his subconscious fears. Experimenting with expressionism, O'Neill based Jones on the Haitian dictator Henri Christophe and the Haitian revolution. Focusing on the uncharted aspects of human consciousness Joneses thoughts create specters which haunt him, each running into the next as his brutal past is eviscerated. The guttural beat of tom-tom drums resonate as Joneses regality contorts and dormant, visceral instincts take control. Ellwoodson Williams, playing Brutus Jones in New Day Repertory's production, disagrees with reviews calling it “dated.” “I don't see it as racist,” Williams says “it's about corruption and dictatorship—” depicting the impact society has in shaping the individual. Paired with the recent tragedy in Haiti and our “war on terror,” O'Neill's message has been resurrected: Fear erodes rationality.
New Day Repertory Company will perform “The Emperor Jones” on February 5 at 8pm, February 6 at 3pm and 8pm, and February 7 at 3pm at the Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center in Poughkeepsie. (845) 485-7399; firstname.lastname@example.org.