On a Far-Away Island
By Martin Harries
The Emperor Jones
By Eugene O'Neill
The Wooster Group at
St. Anne's Warehouse
38 Water St., Brooklyn
Box office: (718) 254-8779
On December 28, 1920, Alexander Woollcott
reviewed The Provincetown Players's The Emperor Jones,
which had transferred from its smaller venue on Macdougal Street
to the much larger Selwyn Theatre: "Of course Charles Gilpin continues
to give his amazing and unforgettable performance as the quondam
Pullman car porter turned Emperor on a far-away island." Now that
the Wooster Group's Emperor Jones has made the move from
the Performing Garage in 1998 to St. Ann's Warehouse in 2006,
one can echo Woollcott: "Kate Valk continues to give her amazing
and unforgettable performance as the quondam Pullman car porter
turned Emperor on a far-away island." There are many things to
be said about the differences that this echo conceals, and I have
learned much from reviews of and essays about the 1998 production
by Michael Feingold, Jonathan
Kalb, Ben Brantley, and Aoife Monks. These writers are especially
compelling about the ways Valk's highly stylized handling of the
role of Brutus Jones unsettles the complex performance history
of O'Neill's play, a role that helped to establish the career
not only of Gilpin but also of Paul Robeson.
I am especially interested, however, in
the way the last words of Woollcott's sentence still fit: The
Wooster Group's Brutus Jones is also a "quondam Pullman car porter
turned Emperor on a far-away island." Critics have pointed again
and again to the ways this production reveals race to be a masquerade,
how Valk's performance, with its stereotyped minstrel intonations,
embodies, in Charles Isherwood's phrase, "a simulacrum of a stereotype."
This Emperor Jones becomes the theatrical realization
of arguments about the performative nature of race that have roiled
the academy and, arguably, been the basis of mass cultural works
from Dave Chappelle skits to Spike Lee's underrated Bamboozled
But where is this "far-away island"? The
Wooster Group only continues the erasure of other political contexts
that have marked productions since 1920. O'Neill's text sets the
stage with a remarkable direction describing the location of The
Emperor Jones: "The action of the play takes place on an
island in the West Indies as yet not self-determined by White
Marines. The form of native government is, for the time being,
an Empire." Each of these sentences turns on a paradox: self-determination
turns out to be determination by U.S. military power; "native
government" takes a form perfected by the West, Empire. To emphasize
these contradictory formulations is not to suggest that the Wooster
Group continues the tradition of missing O'Neill's political acumen,
but to emphasize that the play is itself not only a fiercely problematic
staging of "race." It is, more narrowly and even more troublingly,
a play about the possibility of African-American self-determination,
a play about politics.
"Playing a man falling prey to atavistic
fear bred in his bones by centuries of history," writes Isherwood,
"Ms. Valk performs with a fearlessness that commands something
akin to awe." On the one hand, O'Neill's stage direction registers
deep suspicion of the idea that occupation by "White Marines"
can provide the basis of self-determination. On the other, the
play is the symptomatic expression of a rather different "atavistic
fear": the white fear of black rule. It is as though The Emperor
Jones translates the perceived political threat of black
rule into a tragedy of atavism that decrees that black self-determination
can only be comic.
Valk, speaking to Jones's Cockney sidekick,
Smithers (played the night I attended by Ari Fliakos), intones
a passage that clearly articulates Jones's theory of power:
Dere's little stealin' like you does,
and dere's big stealin' like I does. For de little stealin'
dey gits you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin' dey makes
you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o' Fame when you croaks.
(reminiscently) If dey's one thing I learns in ten
years on de Pullman ca's listenin' to de white quality talk,
it's dat same fact. And when I gits a chance to use it I winds
up Emperor in two years.
As in the opening stage direction, the
"form of native government," here, more or less, kleptocracy,
turns out to be a version of what Jones learned while serving
as a Pullman porter and listening to white men talk. Knowledge
of the basis of power in theft becomes the knowledge necessary
for seizing power on this unnamed island. Valk delivers these
lines, as she does the whole text, with the intensely discomfiting
intonations of the minstrel
show and its mass cultural successors in radio, film, and television:
Amos and Andy play Papa Doc and Baby Doc. But the alienating equipment
of the production -- the Kabuki elements in costuming and performance,
the television monitor, the microphones, the soundtrack -- give
the audience no clue about how to think about Jones's theory of
power. Jones claims he has simply put U.S. theory into practice.
Is this theory of state power as kleptocratic cronyism a canny
reading of power, or is it as cartoonish as the figure who utters
it? Are we supposed to see this West Indian political crisis as
atavistic, as a fall back in time, or is it the exaggerated picture
of a contemporary crisis, quintessentially American at heart?
(Is this why the Wooster Group has chosen to revive the production
To ask that the Wooster Group offer some
easily legible political lesson would be silly. But the discomfort
the production provokes is not only the result of its "fearless"
transcription of a long history of stereotyped representation.
(Or representations: Smithers, too, is a cartoon Cockney.) It
also stems from the Wooster Group's perpetuation of the longstanding
white American myth of black power so tragically misguided that
it becomes comic, or so comically misguided that it becomes tragic.
One might argue that the production subversively undermines this
myth just as it explodes the fixity of race imagined as a set
of behaviors. But does it?
The play names one of the two locations
of black power arguably central to O'Neill's composition of the
play. By making Jones a former Pullman porter, O'Neill identified
-- perhaps without recognizing it -- a powerful presence in U.S.
culture that was to become a force in the early Civil Rights movement.
Even while the duties of Pullman porters required, historians
have argued, a certain minstrel-like enactment of their supposed
happy contentment as servants in elegant railroad cars, their
unusual mobility produced new forms of political awareness and
made them important conduits of information among black Americans.
The other, unnamed location of power returns us to the question
of that "far-away island." Suppose we remember O'Neill's placement
of this island not in some geographical Never Never Land, but
in the West Indies. Suppose, that is, we call this place Haiti.
Haiti was in fact "self-determined by White
Marines" when The Emperor Jones was first staged in 1920,
and its history informs the play's representation of Jones's violent
rule and the background fear of violent popular rebellion. Indeed,
a popular uprising against Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam in 1915,
which ended with the ripping apart of his body and the parading
of the remains, was the pretext for the U.S. occupation, which
ended only in 1934. O'Neill's biographers confirm what any scanning
of recent history would in any case suggest: Haitian events were
among the play's inspirations.
This historical and political context has
disappeared from the Wooster Group's staging of The Emperor
Jones. One might argue -- and Woollcott is evidence -- that
it has almost always disappeared from productions of the play.
Surely the Wooster Group's unrelenting exploration of the production
of a stereotype is a triumph; their re-framing of that production
with a set of media at once absolutely primitive and technologically
sophisticated, from blackface makeup to video monitors, remains
startling. Valk's vivid red neck, too, suggests the white performers
of early minstrel shows and the ways that blackface emerged, to
borrow Michael Rogin's phrase, out of white noise. But one of
the frequencies this white noise burlesques is the very idea of
black self-determination. What if the Wooster Group were to tune
Emperor Jones photos copyright Paula Court. All rights