Obi Abili stars in the title role of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, directed by Ciarán O'Reilly, at Irish Repertory Theatre.
Obi Abili stars in the title role of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, directed by Ciarán O'Reilly, at Irish Repertory Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Often decried as racist, culturally tone-deaf, and just flat-out offensive, Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones has nevertheless managed to maintain a presence on American stages for almost a hundred years. Since its 1920 debut, The Emperor Jones' title role has been performed by acting greats such as Charles Gilpin, Paul Robeson, James Earl Jones, and, in Irish Repertory Theatre's 2009 production, John Douglas Thompson.

The current production at Irish Rep largely re-creates the previous one (both under Ciarán O'Reilly's direction). This timely staging also boasts a roster of fine actors, notably Obi Abili, who plays the Emperor Jones with terrifying fury and heartrending pathos in a nightmarish and hauntingly beautiful production.

The play follows Brutus Jones, a black American man imprisoned for murdering a fellow Pullman porter. He escapes to an unnamed West Indian island after killing a prison guard and dupes the island's superstitious inhabitants into believing that he can be killed only by a silver bullet. He rules as a military despot, with the white trader Smithers (played with a cockney accent by Andy Murray) as his lackey — until one day no one comes when he rings his bell. Realizing his rebellious subjects are coming for him (the beat of tom-toms warns of their approach), Jones makes his getaway into the island's jungle. But while fleeing through the darkness, his mental state disintegrates as he confronts a series of ghoulish visions, including a Witch Doctor who dances a pantomime of Jones' corrupt life, as well as ghosts of the two men he killed — leaving him to contemplate whether he should use the silver bullet in his gun on himself.

This production of The Emperor Jones is a breathtaking experience for the senses. Charlie Corcoran's set, bedecked with ropey, drape-like vines, quickly morphs from Jones' throne room to the dark, insidious jungle. Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab's sound design get pulses racing with the relentless beat of tom-toms and the swirl of heart-pounding music that follow Jones as he thrashes through the trees. Brian Nason's dreamlike lighting design blends with these sounds to create intense scenes of psychological terror.

O'Reilly enhances O'Neill's expressionistic mood by using puppets instead of actors in Brutus Jones' visions. Tim Burton-esque figures of Southern belles (designed by Bob Flanagan) sway and nod as Jones is forced to flex his muscles on an auction block, alongside bunraku puppets representing slaves whose faces suggest Edvard Munch's The Scream.

To create a jungle that seems to come alive, O'Reilly has actors wear costumes of the trees, which lash Jones with whiplike branches as they writhe threateningly around him. Barry McNabb's masterful choreography — which includes Jones' flight through the jungle and, later, his dance with a witch doctor — is mesmerizing.

Carl Hendrick Louis deserves mention for his brief but captivating performance as Lem. Even through a thick mask (also designed by Flanagan) that covers part of his face, Louis conveys intimidating strength.

But it's Abili's performance that gives this production its raw power. Unleashing a torrent of fury in the first scene, he whips his throne repeatedly, showing us Jones' rage at being beaten as a prisoner, while foreshadowing the psychological thrashing he'll soon give himself. Abili triumphs by giving us a Brutus Jones whom we despise for his hypocrisy and arrogance yet empathize with because of the indignities he endured in his own native United States of America. By the end we don't quite know how to feel about Jones, who has eagerly adopted the mindset of the oppressor after living for years among the ranks of the oppressed.

Why he so easily transitions to the role of oppressor is a question that has no clear-cut answer, but to dismiss the play as racist is to avoid having an essential discussion about how Jones, a morally suspect leader who has suddenly risen to power, justifies the marginalization of an entire group of people.

Abili's performance and O'Reilly's production (with a brisk 65-minute run time) make clear that Brutus Jones is one of the great tragic figures of the theater — alongside Macbeth, with whom he bears comparison. Audiences who saw Irish Rep's Emperor Jones in 2009 might too hastily opt not to revisit the show again. But what a difference eight years make. Those who experience this play now are bound to see it with fresh eyes. The racial and political anxieties that The Emperor Jones explores are ripe for renewed discussion in our time.