Saturday evening, we went to the Irish Repertory Theater to see Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. I’d read the play for the first time in college in a course called Themes of Liberation in Contemporary Drama and have reread it several times since, but I’ve never seen it staged before. Part of what has always puzzled me as I’ve read O’Neill’s directions is how anyone could stage the play--how, for example, they’d present the “Little Formless Fears” that are “black, shapeless; only their glittering little eyes can be seen” or how they’d avoid the play coming across as extremely racist, given the use of stereotypical dialect in Brutus Jones’ speech and his repetitive use of ‘nigger’.
The Irish Rep production overcame both of these types of problems. John Douglas Thompson played such a strong Emperor that he keeps true to the dialogue O’Neill has written but reaches far beyond any stereotypes to present a complex character. Even more impressive, though, was Bob Flanagan’s contribution to the play though puppets and masks. Each nightmare-type scene in the forest relies on them in various dreamlike settings, giving the play an inward focus that brings out the Jungian aspects of Jones’ struggles in the dark. Combining these with the music/tom-tom throughout this section made the second half of the play very powerful.