|Arthur Adair directs Eugene O'Neill's "The
Emperor Jones" for Black History Month, and re-envisions the play's
legacy, which is racially charged, with purity: without pop culture or irony.
What has evolved is an experiment in recasting the play with a Greek mold.
"The Emperor Jones" (1920) depicts an American black man who
has escaped from jail and landed on a Caribbean island, where he has deposed
the reigning ruler and set up a miniature empire, becoming rich by manipulating
the superstitions of his subjects. The drama portrays Jones' attempt to
escape his realm once his people have risen against him. Fleeing through
dense forest, with the drums of his infuriated subjects in his ears, he
becomes victim of his own terror, his assuredness stripped away. The character
struck director Arthur Adair as a tragic hero similar to Oedipus or Prometheus,
insofar as he is undone by his own doing, but in the process achieves
a greater understanding of his true self.
Seeing "The Emperor Jones" in Greek terms is not a widely
held notion, but not too far-fetched. After all, we are talking about
the author of "Mourning Becomes Electra," whose plays are widely
suffused with Greek themes. Adair was fascinated by the way Jones takes
responsibility for his crimes (an act not widely embraced by most leaders
today) and prays for mercy, citing his inability to control his emotional
states and instincts as his downfall. Jones faces his abuse of power by
asking repeatedly, "What have I done wrong?", and comes to sees
himself as a poor sinner. However, the play's comment is not on leadership,
but personal responsibility and the inherent nature of man. It's in our
nature to do good, evil or both, Adair points out. As Jones' imagination
goes ever-deeper into Black history--with images of Slave Ships and Witch
Doctors--he resolves not to give into evil.
Sheila Dabney plays a one-woman chorus, representing Nature, Justice,
Human Consciousness and guiding the Emperor through his right of passage.
Adair has adapted O'Neill's stage directions liberally into the spoken
playscript. This enables Dabney--who also plays an Old Native Woman, an
Old Soul and an Old Native Chief--to establish the settings and imagery
for the play and to further enhance the oral storytelling tradition of
the Greek theatre. Dabney is an accomplished orator. Adair remarks that
it's faith in the audience and the evocative power of O'Neill's stage
directions that enables him to rely, not on "cheap spectacle,"
but on Dabney's powerful voice and acting to provide play's visual imagery.
The play is distilled into a performance by three actors, with Xander
Gaines as Jones, Sheila Dabney as the chorus, and Brian P. Glover as the
degenerate Englishman, Henry Smithers.
Noting that Jones' part appears to be written in a period version of
Negro dialect, Adair says this struck him as an alienation effect, which
is countered by the Cockney dialect of the white Smithers. So he deliberately
sought to preserve the somewhat dated and sometimes controversial Negro
dialect, noting how it changes with the essence of the character, who
is played with dignity and elegance by Xander Gaines. "What comes
out," says Adair, "is a character of integrity and nobility
who falls from power into grace."
Arthur Adair (Director/Lighting/Set Design)
is a resident artist of La MaMa E.T.C. His recent directing projects at
La MaMa include his own original translation of Anton Chekhov's "Three
Sisters," a theatrical installation and three site traveling production
which inspired good notices and popular favor this past June. He has also
created two previous original theatrical installations at La MaMa, "Sound
of the Sun" (2002), a 52 member wordless International Opera, and
"SSS-t-o-n-e-ddd," a one-man oration, musically accompanied,
on war and America, performed at the height of the pre-Iraqi war tension.
He has just finished directing Bertolt Brecht's "The Private Life
of the Master Race" for CUNY Queensborough Community College and
is scheduled to direct a staged reading of Rochelle Owens' "The Queen
of Greece" in March. He received an M.F.A. in Theatre Directing from
CUNY Brooklyn College.
Xander Gaines (Emperor Brutus Jones) holds
a BFA in Theater performance from New York University's Tisch School of
the Arts. His plays include "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Shadowboxer"
and "Carousel." He has been a featured vocalist/MC for international
DJ/Producer Gomi and a doorman at premier New York nightclubs (Crobar,
APT, Maritime) and countless FashionWeek events.
Sheila Dabney (An Old Native Woman/ An Old
Soul / An Old Native Chief) has played a range of roles from St. Joan
to Medea. She has performed in Julie Taymor's "The Transposed Heads"
as Thomas Mann, Taymor's "Taming of The Shrew" as Kate and Maria
Irene Fornes' "Sarita" as Sarita (Obie award). She won a Drama-Logue
Award as Titania in the jazz adaptation by Max Roach and George Ferencz
of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." She was Athena in Peter Seller's
"Ajax." In La MaMa's "Oedipus," she was Jocasta with
Min Tanaka. She also appeared in La MaMa's "Conjure Woman" by
Cecil McBee. She has worked with The Living Theatre, The Talking Band
and Cement Inc. She is a graduate of the Edith Skinner Institute, The
Julliard School of Drama and a proud member of The Great Jones Repertory
Brian P. Glover (Henry Smithers) attended
Boston University's School of Theatre Art and studied with Larry Moss
and at the Groundlings. He was last seen at La MaMa E.T.C. in "Balletto
Stilletto," A Watson Arts Project, and as Pontius Pilate in Dario
D'Ambrosi's "The Pathological Passion of the Christ. " Glover
may be seen in the independent film "C.Y.C.", which is to be
showcased at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival.
Wendy Meiling Yang (Costume Design) opened
her flagship atelier and shop, Maiden Hong Kong, in Williamsburg last
fall. Other recent endeavors include costume design for Major Bang or:
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dirty Bomb (now playing at
St. Anne's Warehouse), Off Broadway play Fatal Attraction: A Greek Tragedy,
David Neuman’s Hansel und Gretel at NYU’s Experimental Theater
Wing, assistant costume design & building for Big Dance Theater, and
production design work on Nightmare: NYC’s Original Haunted House
and the short film "The Pied Piper of Manhattan". www.maidenhongkong.com