When Ellen Stewart, founder/artistic director of La MaMa, asked Arthur Adair to direct O'Neill's The Emperor Jones for Black History Month, Adair saw it as an opportunity to re-envision the play's legacy, which is racially charged, and to do so with purity: without pop culture or irony. What has evolved is an experiment in recasting the play with a Greek mold.
The Emperor Jones (1920) depicts an American black man who has escaped from jail and landed on a Caribbean island, where he has deposed the reigning ruler and set up a miniature empire, becoming rich by manipulating the superstitions of his subjects. The drama portrays Jones' attempt to escape his realm once his people have risen against him. Fleeing through dense forest, with the drums of his infuriated subjects in his ears, he becomes victim of his own terror, his assuredness stripped away.
The character struck director Arthur Adair as a tragic hero similar to Oedipus or Prometheus, insofar as he is undone by his own doing, but in the process achieves a greater understanding of his true self.