Emperor Jones and His Lazy Negroes

photo credit: NY Times
photo credit: NY Times

There's a bit of controversy brewing in New York City right now.  The Emperor Jones is back.  Eugene O'Neill's 1920 play about a black convicted murderer who escapes to a Caribbean island and poses as an emperor.  He's able to do so because the "primitives" are so full of violence, ignorance and superstition they'd believe anything.  Darn those "primitives".  Only if life had dealt them a better hand they wouldn't be so prone to gullibility at the hands of some charlatan Negro.  (Forgive me, but I just had to say that. LOL.)  Anyway, Paul Robeson and James Earl Jones, both, played the title character.


I always thought The Emperor Jones was a challenge.  I guess that's obvious.  It's burdened with a gibberish dialect commonly found in the imagination of white writers of the early 20th century.  But that's not the controversy.  Well, not all of it.  The Irish Repertory Theater in New York City is producing the play.  They're producing it even after Ben Brantley, the New York Times theater critic who can make or break a career, said "America has long passed the point where a straightforward production of ‘The Emperor Jones,’ with a black man delivering O’Neill’s dialectical speeches as written, could be other than embarrassing."  Now if Ben Brantley is warning you not to put on this racially-charged play full of stereotypes and crazy why would you.

If things could get any more ridiculous, the play's director, Ciaran O'Reilly, doesn't provide any real context for wanting to stage the comedy in 2009, post-Obama, where context is everywhere.  In a New York Times interview O'Reilly simply says:

“It’s a tricky subject for a white, Irish guy to be doing… But that was what O’Neill did.  He was a white Irish guy.”

Mmm.  I'm going to leave that one alone.  However, I will say except for honoring O'Neill, or feeling the need to infuriate present-day Black folks, or reuniting white audiences with O'Neill's ability to capture "primitive" blackness and not being "primitive" himself, well, except for that, I'm not sure why this play is being produced.  Some O'Neill advocates argue The Emperor Jones is really O'Neill masking an Irish story.  But I'll say this:  that's what they all say.  Writers have often used blackness as the funky costume to play out other issues (so they say), but that doesn't make it acceptable.  I'd respect the director Ciaran O'Reilly and the Irish Rep's choice to produce the play if it was their way at poking fun at President Obama, or even the Conservative Right.  That doesn't seem to be the case.  So I'm left with this sentiment:  The dialect-speaking Negro trickster, Emperor Jones, who seduces an island of voodoo-worshipping, violent, lazy primitives, is a construct of a white mind.  Enough said.

Keith Josef Adkins is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter and social commentator.