The primitive dialect, the native superstitions and all the other supposedly racist elements in Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 tragedy that make sensitive auds squirm nowadays are simply brushed aside by John Douglas Thompson. This astonishingly gifted thesp — unknown hereabouts until he won kudos for his recent portrayal of Othello for Theater for a New Audience — confers dignity, intelligence, canniness and a sly sense of humor on the psychologically complex character of Brutus Jones, a convicted murderer who escaped from his American prison and made his way to an island in the West Indies where he declared himself “The Emperor Jones.”
In Thompson’s commanding perf, Jones is no grasping brute who mindlessly plunders his tiny kingdom before falling victim to ancient gods angered by his greed and cruelty — although he could no doubt put some muscle into that interpretation, as well.
The view of the tin-pot dictator we get from Thompson, which is probably closer to O’Neill’s own reading of the character, shows us a crafty conman skilled at reading the needs of his victims. Hence, the flashy crown, the ornate throne, the military uniform dripping with medals.
It isn’t Jones’ ego that demands these trappings but his browbeaten subjects’ naive fantasies of what authority looks like; their fear of him emanates from an intrinsic belief in the cruelty of truly powerful men. When they need to hand over the riches of the island to a stranger — the “big circus show” they want — Jones is happy to oblige.
And while he treats the lowly “bush niggas” he exploits with genuine contempt, this crafty strongman is no racist. Jones is even more contemptuous of Smithers, a foul and shabby specimen of white colonialism in Rick Foucheux’s pointed perf.
Where O’Neill extends himself — and Thompson asserts his own considerable command of the role — is in revealing the psychological motivators of cruelty and how they can come undone under stress. O’Neill makes it clear Jones’ cruelty is a product of his treatment by white men. And when he comes apart — thrashing around in the bush, terrified of demons produced by his own fevered brain — it’s because his own rage has blinded him to reason.
In what is essentially a dialogue with these dark forces of his own imagination, Thompson does a masterful job of articulating the primal fears Jones has repressed all his life in order to survive. But thesp doesn’t get what he needs from Ciaran O’Reilly’s direction, which relies on puppets manipulated by masked actors in strange, Gumby-like costumes to convey the invisible sources of Jones’ panic.
On a larger stage with more sophisticated technology (especially lighting) to create the illusion, the haunted wood might terrify us as much as it does Jones. But on the Irish Rep’s painfully inadequate stage, we can see right through the artifice, destroying the effect. As for those drums, which famously alarmed auds at the earliest productions of O’Neill’s play, they sound canned.