It's quite a thing for a young, relatively unknown theater critic to be confronted with a production that so many of her betters have called great. The weight on my shoulders is to see this production as it has been seen, to understand its avant-gardism as it has been understood. And so I will try to know it through that very notion of weight, of heft and influence. The Wooster Group's The Emperor Jones is a highly theatrical deconstruction of a finely constructed self. The self, in this case, is Brutus Jones, a brute of a Negro who narrowly escapes the criminal life in America only to inflict his racial self-hatred on a group of West Indian islanders by appointing himself their master and overlord. The action begins as Jones's smarmy little No. 2, a Cockney ne'er-do-well named Smithers (Ari Fliakos), informs him that the natives are planning a revolt. Jones flees into the Great Forest—a heart of darkness if there ever was one—and, when confronted with the ghosts of sins past, devolves into a whimpering jungle primitive.
More and more often, the theater is becoming a nice, if tepid, color-blind space, where cross-cultural fusion is an unspoken exercise in political correctness rather than an elemental component of a show's message. But because this production self-consciously reveals our culture's image of the black man, race is an all too relevant matter. The Emperor Jones, written by a white Eugene O'Neill, premiered downtown in 1920 and was heralded by a black W.E.B. DuBois as a "work that must be done."
Eighty-odd years later, a white Elizabeth Le Compte directs a white, female Kate Valk as Jones. Valk is a convincing minstrel. Her high-pitched vocal undulations and coal-hued blackface are startling reminders that, from start to finish, this can still be a challenging, confrontational piece of theater. Casting Valk, Le Compte has daringly violated a fundamental Jim Crow rule by pairing a white woman with a black man; as we stare at Valk-as-Jones, the discomfort of this pairing is always with us.
Jones and Smithers are outfitted in dingy, Kabuki-esque kimonos and, without warning, perform synchronized dances, set to an 80's discothèque beat, that draw on vaudeville, minstrelsy, and stylized Noh movements. When Jones is haunted in the woods by a menacing witch doctor, Smithers, bare-chested and stomping, walks onstage like a sumo wrestler who must use the weight of himself to overcome, or at least intimidate, his opponent. It is as though the East that enchanted 19th-century America—Commodore Perry's ships arrived in Japan only nine years before the start of the Civil War—has been reappropriated to help destabilize the loaded Western dichotomy between black and white.
The stage and staging bear the weight of Artaud's "theater of cruelty" (glaring bright lights line the sides and back of the stage) and Brechtian alienation (television sets offer scratchy hints at scenery and distorted reproductions of character images) quite well. The tech crew is constantly in full view, and Valk and Fliakos speak into microphones that amplify their voices over syncopated bass notes and electro-clash noise. There is no escaping the trappings of theater; in this production it is neither a comfort nor an escape but a space that carefully dismantles the construct of the American Negro.
And yet I find myself wondering if what I have seen isn't somehow a closed system: to whom is this esoteric deconstruction aimed if not the largely white and largely upper-middle-class audiences that make up the theatergoing public? Make no mistake, this is a challenge issued out of respect, for both LeCompte's production and the weight of social and political aggravation that the theater should, and must, bear. I left the theater wondering, Where is the shifting weight in cultural authority—in both art making and art appreciation—that a work this challenging can help usher in? That is, where are the consistent representations of authentic marginalized voices onstage? And, perhaps more important, where in the crowd of theatergoing audiences are the throngs of faces that those voices represent?
I sincerely hope that this important exercise in alienation, discomfort, and even revolt has been more than just theater for theater's sake.