- The Emperor Jones dir. by Lois Elswick
If The Emperor Jones had been written in time to be performed at the tiny Wharf Theatre in Provincetown during Eugene O’Neill’s debut summer of 1916 (it actually premiered at the Playwrights’ Theatre in New York four years later), this production is what it would have looked like. On a shoestring budget and with simple stage effects, the Summit Artspace amateurs offered a surprisingly intense production with a rakish, charismatic Treviel Cody in the title role.
The group of performers was a mix of University of Akron alumni and current students committed to presenting challenging theater to the public. The play was directed by Lois Elswick, an Akron graduate student, who has also directed local productions of O’Neill’s rarely staged early-career one-acts, Recklessness and Abortion. Promotional copy and the event program announced that The Emperor Jones was being offered “in celebration of Black History Month.” As the audience filed in, gangsta rap music and lyrics put together exclusively for the production by local composer Richard Reed—“I’ll Be Your Emperor Jones”—imparted a sophisticated, contemporary atmosphere.
Though Treviel Cody is small in stature, his cool and stylish Brutus Jones exudes Paul Robeson–like physical and emotional authority—until he is assaulted by his own consciousness in the form of deep-seated historically constructed insecurities. Cody meets the challenge of poignantly tracking the Emperor’s retrograde journey into collective cultural memory, his graduated descent from autonomy and unassailable power to abject vulnerability.
This Emperor’s formidable persona obviously carries the play, but he is helped substantially by Robert Branch, who gives a skilled and perceptive portrayal of Smithers, the cockney trader. Capitalizing on Branch’s effectiveness, the Akron production makes the atypical but welcome maneuver of actually [End Page 276] paying close attention to the emotions of Smithers, who is overshadowed in many versions of the drama, including Dudley Murphy’s famous 1933 film adaptation. Branch’s cockney dialect is well-honed, offering a rich auditory counterpart to Jones’s equally distinctive black idiom. Moreover, Branch’s emotive skills—demonstrated through a series of gestures and facial expressions in response to Jones’s monologues—make of the trader a character almost as psychologically interesting as the Emperor.
Talking with me after the play, Branch shared his personal take on Smithers, explaining that he likened his relationship with the Emperor to the central George-Lennie pairing in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Like Steinbeck’s George, who superficially berates and dominates Lennie while actually seeking to protect his friend from the consequences of his loosely controlled exercise of physical power, Branch’s Smithers is conflicted in his relationship to Jones. On stage, Smithers circles Jones like a satellite trapped in the Emperor’s orbit. At times he cowers obsequiously, at other times he vents Iago-like envy, but he is also clearly rooting for Jones and delighting vicariously in his grandiose manner. At play’s end, Branch’s Smithers conveys palpable shock and disbelief at the death of his hero. More so than in Murphy’s film version, what lends pathos to the black Emperor’s demise is the white trader’s reaction to it, creating a moment that suddenly and strongly suggests cross-racial empathy and interdependence between the two principal characters.
Presenting The Emperor Jones as a celebratory paradigm of black history for a largely black audience is a risky move, requiring confident acting and staging. In post-play interviews, the young ensemble—which also included Thuraya UmbayeMake as the Native Woman and Emmanuel Anim-Koranteng as Lem—unanimously expressed respect for the surprising modernity of O’Neill’s treatment of race in relation to his era. Most of the troupe were acting in an O’Neill play for the first time. They were impressed and interested, they said, by the fact that this nearly century-old work is still considered controversial. Cody, who is not only the play’s star but one of its producers, extolled both the psychological complexity and the contemporary...