Tuesday, May 24, 2005

American Century Theatre to Mount 'Emperor Jones'

My most recent experience with Eugene O'Neill was a production of Ah, Wilderness! at Live Arts in Charlottesville a couple of seasons ago. Ah, Wilderness! is an atypical O'Neill play -- for one thing, it's a comedy, the only one of O'Neill's plays that could possibly have been adapted into a musical (which it was, as Take Me Along, starring Robert Morse and Jackie Gleason). It's also a coming-of-age story that suggests that O'Neill was not completely warped by an unhappy childhood and adolescence. The O'Neill family's addictions to opium and booze and self-pity did not leave Eugene completely bereft of pleasant memories.

Over the years I have been fortunate enough to see Jason Robards, the actor who defined Eugene O'Neill in the popular imagination, in both A Touch of the Poet and The Iceman Cometh. Those productions were at the Kennedy Center in Washington more years ago than I care to remember. In high school, my English class went to see Long Day's Journey into Night at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago; one of my great regrets from the year I lived in London was not seeing that play directed on the West End by Jonathan Miller, with Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey in the leads.

In the summer of 1999, I saw Thirst, an early one-act play by O'Neill about three people on a raft after a shipwreck. It was on a double-bill at the American Century Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, with a one-act by Elaine May called Adaptation, described as "a contest, played like Parcheesi, in which the contestant advances or is sent back through the seven ages of man." The two plays were so dissimilar that I was flummoxed and failed to write a review of the evening's program, "Two Masks." Adaptation is a fanciful comedy that, while it has philosophical undertones, aims its barbs at the popular culture of the 1960s. (The play was first published in 1969.) Thirst, being early O'Neill, does not show the playwright at his best -- at times it seems overwritten, more in the style of The Count of Monte Cristo that made his father famous, than in the modern idiom that was O'Neill's contribution to American theatre and literature. Still, it is clearly a naturalistic drama, nothing like the surreal comedy of May's Adaptation.

Now comes the announcement that O'Neill is returning to the American Century Theatre, this time in the form of The Emperor Jones -- the play that made Paul Robeson famous. This very dark, Darwinistic drama is seldom produced (naturally, otherwise TACT would not have much of a challenge), so I look forward to seeing it. (I have seen excerpts of the 1933 movie starring Robeson, which was salvaged after many years of being lost.) Some may lay charges of political incorrectness against this portrayal of a black man who becomes a brutal dictator, but such philistines must be resisted. The Emperor Jones explores the same universal questions of what turns a man from good to evil as Revenge of the Sith does.

Here is the announcement from TACT about its upcoming production of The Emperor Jones:

Eugene O’Neill Classic: The Emperor Jones featuring Bus Howard
Next for American Century Theater: Opens June 23rd

The American Century Theater’s next production is one of the most daring dramas in the entire American stage repertoire: Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. When it was first produced in 1921, The Emperor Jones made it clear that its playwright was determined to make good on his pledge to re-make drama into something more vital and challenging than earlier generations could even imagine.

At the height of Jim Crow racism and with the Ku Klux Klan ascendant, The Emperor Jones presented to the white main-stream theater audiences a character study of a complex, powerful, flawed tragic hero who was black. It was an immediate sensation, and had two Broadway productions within four years, the second starring Paul Robeson. Robeson went on to play "Brutus Jone" in the movie version of the play.

"We have wanted to do this marvelous drama since the American Century Theater was founded," says Artistic Director Jack Marshall. "For ten years we have been looking for the right director, and the actor who can play Brutus Jones. We found them."

The director is TACT Artistic Associate Ed Bishop, who has a long list of stage achievements over the past two decades. His personal quest has been to oversee the revival of classic plays about the African-American experience that more timid theater companies have shelved for fear of being castigated for being socially wrong-headed.

"Brutus Jones is a man on the way to self-discovery and O’Neill boldly exposes his complex inner-emotions," says Bishop. "His terrifying experiences as he flees for his life pursued by his former followers, his enemies and especially his own personal demons will connect with all of us."

Taking on the daring and huge role of Brutus Jones is Bus Howard, a veteran of such Arena Stage productions as The Great White Hope and Polk County. Most recently, he has been seen in the continuing role of “Ott” on the HBO’s hit series, "The Wire."

The cast includes Tel Monks, Linda Williams, Patricia Buignet, Bruce Allen Dawson, Constance Ejuma, Clarence V.M. Fletcher, DeLon Howell, James Lewis, and KC Wright. Producer Rhonda Hill has assembled technical artisans such as Tom Kennedy (The Andersonville Trial, Machinal) Set Designer, Rip Claassen (The Time of Your Life, Paradise Lost) Costumer, Ann Marie Castrigno, Lighting Designer, Suzanne Maloney (The Time of Your Life) Props Designer, and Patricia Buigney, Movement Coordinator.

The play is famous for its use of drums to build feverish suspense, as well as its expressionistic portrayals of ghosts, dreams, animals and "Formless Fears."

"Melvin Deal and the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers" are pivotal to set the scenes for The Emperor Jones, as music is an important part of the production. The rhythms of drums are heard throughout the production.

Marshall hastens to add. "The play never lags. And audiences will be in the middle of the action of this dangerous play. Audiences will also be able to get their O’Neill fix without a four hour commitment."

The Emperor Jones runs June 23-July 23. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday evenings at 8 PM with 2:30 matinees on July 10, 17 and 23. Tickets are $18-$26. Performances are at Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, Virginia 22206. Call 703-553-8782 or visit www.americancentury.org for information and reservations.

The American Century Theater is a 501 (C)(3) professional nonprofit theater company dedicated to producing, great, important and neglected 20th Century American playwrights. TACT is funded in part by the Arlington County Cultural Affairs Division of the Department of Parks Recreation and Community Services, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, numerous foundations and many generous donors.

1 comment:

Jack Marshall said...

Hey Rick: Jack Marshall here, your old GU director and Artistic Director of The American Century Theater. I'll leave you and your excellent blog's readers an advance version of The Emperor Jones' program notes; they are germane to your comments. An aside about Thirst: I picked it because I liked the life-raft setting, the ironic and grisly ending, and the completely iredeemably bleak plot developments that make it my answer to the trivia question, "What is O'Neill's most dismal play?" When the entire cast is eaten by sharks, now that's tragedy.

Now the notes: "It would be difficult to identify a more important 20th Century American play in the nation’s cultural history than Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones.

Premiering at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1920, it immediately established Eugene O’Neill as a major theatrical talent. He went on, of course, to be America’s greatest playwright (and certainly its most prolific, versatile, and gloomy great playwright), creating Strange Interlude, Anna Christie, A Long Day’s Journey into Night, Mourning Becomes Electra, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and The Iceman Cometh to name a small sampling of his prolific output. But The Emperor Jones created a bigger splash than any of them. The Playhouse, really just a semi-professional theater at the time, sold 1000 subscriptions the week after the play opened. Nobody had ever seen anything like the drama’s form, an extended monologue combined with complex visual and sound elements including a heart-like drum-beat that intensified throughout the evening. It was one of the very first expressionist plays, shattering the realism that had monopolized the American stage. And it was about a black character who was portrayed as a human being, not as a stereotyped comic figure like virtually all the black characters on the American stage before (and quite a few after.). Brutus Jones was a tragic hero, or perhaps anti-hero, that could get under the white audience’s skin.

When the play was mounted in London several years later, its new star was Paul Robeson, a brilliant man who happened to excel at acting and singing as well. So memorable was his performance that Robeson and Brutus Jones became permanently linked in theater lore, like Marlon Brando and Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, or Gertrude Lawrence and Liza Elliot in Lady in the Dark. As with those roles, any subsequent actor who attempted the part of Jones was sure to be found wanting in comparison to the artist who defined the role, even by critics who had been in swaddling clothes the last time Robeson had actually appeared on stage.

But ultimately it was not the looming shadow of Robeson that gradually caused The Emperor Jones to be considered unproducable, but the searing issue that dominated Robson’s life, civil rights. After decades of frequent professional and amateur productions as well as a successful opera and film version, The Emperor Jones was branded a racist play in the late 1960s. The label is at odds with the play’s antecedents, history, author, star and content, but never mind: social reformers who might have never seen the play on stage read O’Neill’s slave-dialect lines, considered the plot of a proud and powerful black man reduced to the state of a hunted beast and decided that the dreaded word “offensive” applied. Yet any fair analysis of O’Neill’s politics and dramatic inclinations would suggest that he created the saga of Brutus Jones as a metaphor for all mankind, and not as racist slander. The fact that O’Neill hand-picked Paul Robson is telling, for Robeson, a political activist who shared many of O’Neill’s leftist political views, imbued all of his performances with dignity and fierce intelligence.
Nonetheless, The Emperor Jones is currently stored in the dusty corner of America’s theatrical library reserved for landmark plays that are considered too hot to handle in today’s racially-charged America, together with Show Boat, Porgy, Green Pastures, and O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings.
By tolerating this injustice, the theater, supposedly the most bold and courageous of the performing arts, is rejecting its legacy, its legends, and its reason for being. Paul Robeson, American audiences, and America’s greatest playwright deserve more respect."