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The Emperor Jones

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The Washington Post

Spare but Haunting 'Emperor Jones' Cuts to the Chase

By Tricia Olszewski
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 30, 2005; Page C05

The drumbeat, at first, is enough to drive you crazy. Arrive even a few minutes early to American Century Theater's production of "The Emperor Jones," and you'll be treated to nearly a half-hour of live percussion, which begins preshow and continues well into the play's opening scene. Courtesy of Barbara Weber, the beat is strong and insistent -- and when it finally falls silent, your ears will be grateful for the rest.

Of course, the rhythm's ability to get under your skin is all part of the experience. "The Emperor Jones," Eugene O'Neill's 1920 expressionist drama, is about one man's descent from power to madness. A brief scene with an estate overseer named Smithers (John Tweel) establishes that Brutus Jones (Bus Howard), a former Pullman porter and convicted murderer, escaped the United States two years back and, with nothing but smarts and bravado, took over an island in the West Indies. But now, Smithers informs Jones, the natives have tired of their emperor's rule. His servants have left, and a rebellion is being planned.

Jones decides to escape to the woods, where he's buried sustenance in preparation for such an upheaval. "The Emperor Jones," at this point, turns into a monologue -- it's just the emperor, his demons and, yes, once again the pulse of Weber's drum. Now the rhythm is reminiscent of a heartbeat, audible but regular at first as the heretofore arrogant Jones has trouble finding his stash. It's only the first misfortune of a very bad night to come, however, and as Jones's fear increases, so does the nerve-wracking tempo.

In keeping with American Century Theater's mission, "The Emperor Jones" is one of O'Neill's less frequently staged works. (Its portrayal of a despotic, patois-speaking black man has been criticized as racist.) With most audience members, therefore, presumably unfamiliar with the character, the script's brevity -- this production runs a little more than an hour -- is the play's most obvious downfall. Jones's short conversation with Smithers is the only background provided on the title character; you'll likely not feel as if you have a handle on who this person is before he's then thrown into adversity, with an abrupt resolution not far behind.

What is there, however, is pretty mesmerizing stuff. The audience forms a circle around Thomas B. Kennedy's spare set of tropical plants, rocks and dark-green overhangs, all dimly lit by AnnMarie Castrigno to evoke dusk as filtered through a forest. The small space seems even more claustrophobic when dominated by the towering Howard (familiar from his recurring role on HBO's "The Wire"), who is fascinating as a man whose vulnerability steadily erodes his arrogance until he's debilitated.

Most thrilling, however, is the production's representation of Jones's delirium. He's haunted by the people he's killed, who appear silently, moving in slow motion at the set's periphery. He imagines himself being sold at auction, which again is silent except for two well-dressed women eerily giggling under a parasol. And those sitting near one of several aisles to the stage may get a fright when, amid the darkness, they glimpse the formless fears suddenly crawling out to torment the emperor: These ghost figures, embodied by hunched-over actors covered in tattered black sheets and a few tiny red blinking lights, are easily the creepiest contribution to Jones's building nightmare. In contrast, the drumming doesn't seem so unsettling after all.

The Emperor Jones , by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Ed Bishop. Sound, Keith Bell; costumes, Rip Claassen, props, Suzanne Maloney. Approximately 1 hour 10 minutes. Through July 23 at Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Call 703-553-8782 or visit http://www.americancentury.org .

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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The Washington Times

'Emperor' rules with same force

By Jayne Blanchard
Published June 28, 2005

The drumming can be heard from the lobby, a rhythmic and pulsating beat that gets under your skin and heats up the blood. Barbara Weber's expert and insistent drumming sets a mood of suspense and foreboding in American Century Theater's outstanding production of Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones."
    Director Ed Bishop turns the generic space into the humid tropics through AnnMarie Castrigno's lighting design (casting greenish, leafy patterns onto the floor and walls), Thomas B. Kennedy's set (evoking a thicketed, confounding jungle with a few movable pieces) and unnerving sound effects by Keith Bell that have you looking over your shoulder to figure out just what is making that noise in the dark. Mr. Bishop expertly combines these visual and aural elements with stylized dance and movement to give us an "Emperor Jones" that glows like an island jewel.
    First produced in 1921, the play established Mr. O'Neill as a playwright of considerable merit. The part of Brutus Jones, Pullman porter-turned-island ruler, became inextricably linked to the actor Paul Robeson.
    Audiences flocked to the play, intrigued by the drumming and the expressionistic treatment of ghosts and memories -- as well as by a black leading character who was neither a comic stereotype nor a song-and-dance man.
    The play fell out of favor by the late 1960s, deemed "racist" because of Mr. O'Neill's version of field-hand dialect and the idea of a once-grand black man reduced to a hunted animal.
    The American Century Theater has exhumed the play, which turns out to be remarkably vital and relevant even in today's politically correct environment.
    "The Emperor Jones," running a swift 90 minutes, charts the downfall of Brutus Jones (Bus Howard), who went from "stowaway to emperor in two years" and presides over an island in the West Indies.
    The play begins on the dawn of his being cast from the throne -- his staff having already fled from his palatial estate while he slept. A crass overseer, Smithers (the excellent John Tweel), informs Jones of the change in leadership, and advises that he'd better escape into the jungle before the insurgents track him down.
    With only the clothes on his back (including a once-ornate waistcoat), Jones goes into the forest primeval. There, he encounters ghostly remnants of his past and eerie manifestations of his greatest fears.
    Mr. Howard's portrayal of Brutus Jones is marked by razored intelligence as he uses his wits and his profound belief in luck to see him through.
    This intelligence is tempered by a humbling familiarity, as Mr. Howard maintains a sense of bravado through a continuous interior monologue that raises talking to yourself to the level of art.
    It is a dark night of the soul worthy of Dante as Jones runs through the night jungle, stumbling upon images of sin and evil, of witchcraft and magic, of the darkness clouding his own soul. These visions are conjured by a superb ensemble of dancers and actors (Patricia Buignet, Bruce Allen Dawson, Constance Ejuma, Clarence V.M. Fletcher, DeLon Howell, Jason Nious, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, Julia Stemper, Jimmy L. Tansil Jr., and Linda Williams Terry) who are particularly effective when evoking a closely packed slave ship rocking against the current and as various exotic and creepy creatures of the night.
    An eye-opening experience, "The Emperor Jones" will introduce many theatergoers to Mr. O'Neill's experimental, expressionistic side as well as to his breathtaking portrait of a common man who rose to the status of emperor, only to be hunted down by the people over whom he lorded.
    In 1921, Mr. O'Neill spoke eloquently of the dangers of the exploited becoming the exploiters, an apt lesson today, when the abuse of power is a seemingly unbreakable cycle.
    WHAT: "The Emperor Jones" by Eugene O'Neill
    WHERE: American Century Theater, Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington
    WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through July 23.
    TICKETS: $18 to $26
    PHONE: 703/998-4555

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The Washington Post "Backstage"

Restoring 'Emperor Jones' to Power

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 28, 2005; Page C05

"I have always felt guilty that a theater with our mission has not done more O'Neill," American Century Theater Artistic Director Jack Marshall says. The Arlington troupe, which revives rarely done American plays, is presenting Eugene O'Neill's 1921 expressionist drama "The Emperor Jones" through July 23 at the Gunston Arts Center.

After the company's success a couple of seasons back with Sophie Treadwell's "Machinal," Marshall thought "The Emperor Jones" would offer a similarly satisfying challenge. Expressionist plays of the early 20th century, with their avant-garde manifestations of characters' thoughts and fears, "give a lot of opportunities to directors and designers" to experiment, he says.

Bus Howard, whom longtime viewers of HBO's "The Wire" will recognize as Ott and who appeared in "Polk County" and "The Great White Hope" at Arena Stage, plays the title character, Brutus Jones. A former Pullman porter and convicted murderer, Jones escaped a chain gang and fled to a Caribbean island, where he bamboozled the gullible locals, became their much-feared emperor and robbed them blind. As the play opens, his "subjects" have had enough and Jones prepares to make a run for it. His guilt and paranoia materialize from the jungle as shadowy phantoms.

Howard says rehearsals with director Ed Bishop became an investigation into how someone like Jones, who came from a background of relative privilege compared with the islanders, could, as Howard puts it, "dog someone else. What is in their character that allows that to happen?" That, Howard says, is "the darkness of the human spirit that O'Neill is looking at."

The actor ascribes some of Jones's behavior to the brutal legacy of slavery. "When he gets the opportunity to become the leader . . . everybody else is going to feel his wrath," Howard says. "It's an unfeeling, unflinching kind of arrogance that he has."

A source of controversy when it debuted, the play soon became a star vehicle for the legendary African American actor Paul Robeson. In the 1960s and after, Marshall says, its portrayal of a fatally flawed black antihero speaking in a heavy dialect was condemned as racist.

Marshall argues that "O'Neill was making a much broader universal statement about the human state, about human hubris." Howard finds it remarkable that O'Neill "was able to capture the feeling of this man as an African American and then wrote this for an African American man [to portray] in 1920."

To handle the physicality of the role, the 6-foot-2 Howard began working out soon after he was cast. He lost 36 pounds, slimming down to 220.

During a family vacation, he memorized all his lines in the short but text-heavy piece, which is nearly a monologue.

"It is such a journey that he takes emotionally," Howard says. "I didn't want to be fighting the words when I came into rehearsal.

"Then you have all kinds of time to explore all types of different things. You can just stretch it and go as far out as you want to -- or as far in."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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