- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 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: 703/553-8782


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