The Emperor Jones (1/07/2009)
"I learn more when I'm being entertained," a student wrote in a journal last year. The Wooster Group is known for subversive provocation, so if that is your idea of entertainment—if you find ideas entertaining or meta-performance inevitable and intriguing, not pretentious or contrived—bring the whole chain-gang of your internal critics and cultural conscience down to this staging of Eugene O'Neill's 1920 work when next performed.
Brutus Jones, the self-anointed king of a West Indian island, faces insurrection by his "fool bush nigger" subjects. There is nothing comfortable in seeing a white actor in blackface perform the dialect of minstrelsy for an hour, but it might be more uncomfortable for a contemporary Caucasian audience to hear the same script from the lips of a black man. I became excruciatingly aware of the degree to which performance is a contract between the actors and the audience: the payment and the acquiescent listening in exchange for the promise of amusement or edification.
The Wooster Group earns its reputation not only through Kate Valk's astoundingly dedicated recitation, a virtuosic testimony to commitment and craft, but also through its visual and musical components. The minimalist set, elaborate Kabuki-influenced costumes, limited palette, upstage televisions offering intermittent grids or pulsing blobs, choreographed sequences, and soundtrack that intersperses drumming with segments more reminiscent of Tangerine Dream all combine to present an interpretation that engages and enlightens through raising more questions than it answers. Current events make O'Neill's lines resonate: “For the small stealing, they put you in jail. For the big stealing, they make you Emperor.”
The demographic of the press night crowd at the Goodman also underlined Jones' plaintive cry: “What are you looking at, white folks?” Can anyone transcend essentialism? History dictates that a black actor performing in whiteface in no way carries the same impact as the reverse, just as there is nothing that I can say on the street in response to a catcall that is fully retaliatory. There is no such thing as neutral speech.
In theory, we are entering a post-racial society. In reality, the fact that this production is a powerful event, even with its cool self-aware certitude, indicates that we have not. Jones knows the Baptist Church, and the Bible says that the sins of the fathers are visited for four generations (Exodus 34:6-7). Legal slavery in the United States ended in 1865. It persists on the planet today. There is no shortage of human inhumanity to humans. What is the statute of limitations on atrocity? Perhaps all of us, like the Emperor, can declaim: "Forgive me, Lord. Forgive this poor sinner," or "Lord, I done wrong."
Photo credit: Paula Court