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The Emperor Jones Goes Greek
The Emperor Jones--Xander Gaines, Brian P. Glover, (behind) Sheila Dabney.
"The Emperor Jones"
Directed by Arthur Adair
La MaMa E.T.C.
74A East Fourth St.
Opened Feb. 2, 2006
Thurs. thru Sat. 7:30 p.m., Sun. 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.
$18, Students $13 (212) 475-7710
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Feb. 3, 2006
Some ideas sound good and look good on paper, but when put into action, they just don't work out. So it is with La MaMa's production of Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones."
Director Arthur Adair sees The Emperor Jones as a Greek drama, with Jones, an American black man who has escaped from jail and subsequently set up a miniature empire on a the West Indian Island, as the tragic hero. Jones's downfall, caused by the revolt of his subjects and his own feelings of guilt and terror, eventually leads to self discovery as he goes deep into his own history as well as the history of black men in America.
So far so good. But Adair's idea of turning The Emperor Jones into a Greek tragedy means having the actors speak most of O'Neill's stage directions and character descriptions that were originally meant for the reader or the director. This, one assumes, is supposed to be the Greek chorus.
The problem with Adair's reasoning is all too obvious as the play progresses. Stage directions are meant to set the scene and help define character for the production, not for the audience. It is up to the director, and the set, lighting, sound and costume designer to interpret those instructions for the audience. The reading of the stage directions, if anything, turns the drama into a narrative accompanied by limited action… or perhaps a rehearsal, and one that seems to drag on endlessly.
Sheila Dabney is an old native woman, an old soul, an old native chief and the principal reader. She is certainly noteworthy for her endurance.
Xander Gaines is a tepid Brutus Jones in the beginning of the play but comes alive in the second half. His terror is compelling and riveting and so real one can almost smell it. But Brian P. Glover as the Cockney trader, Henry Smithers, overacts so consistently he turns Smithers into a caricature and a fool, rather than the shrewd operator O'Neill intended him to be.
The Emperor Jones exhibits the strong influence Strindberg's impressionism had on O'Neill. As Jones runs through the jungle to escape his pursuers, the tom-toms beat steadily and relentlessly creating a hellish atmosphere. Under such duress, Jones confuses what is actually happening with what he believes is happening. But in this production, every time the audience might be caught up in the horror, the intrusion of O'Neill's stage directions breaks the mood by turning emotion into literature.
Greek drama was written to incorporate a chorus that commented on actions both on and off stage. Today we are not totally sure how it was used in plays--whether, in fact, the words were actually set to music and, if so, what were the melodies. But we do know that choruses were intrinsic to the drama and, unlike stage directions, meant to be heard.
The Emperor Jones is an excellent choice for Black History Month. It was one of the first American plays to delve into the psych of a black man. It also unflinchingly confronts the legacy of slavery. But incorporating stage directions into a staged production and reducing the drama to auxiliary action performed on a raised wooden platform is like superimposing orthogonal lines on da Vinci's last supper. Adair would have done better giving the audience more scenery and letting O'Neill's magnificent dialogue do the rest.
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