Compared with the Wooster Group, other avant-garde theater companies mostly seem like sloppy seconds. With the sublime Kate Valk repeating her startling blackface turn as Brutus Jones, this revival of the group’s 1998 remix of Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 Expressionist drama “The Emperor Jones” illustrates the deep-think textual analysis that goes into the company’s flawless technological artistry. Ask not for whom the jungle drums beat: During this brief showcase run (through April 2), they are calling the faithful to come see how it’s done.
Although it became a relatively realistic stage and film vehicle for Paul Robeson, O’Neill’s short play was designed as a psychological nightmare, chronicling in eight tightly orchestrated movements the disintegration of a troubled mind.
For all its techno tricks, Elizabeth LeCompte’s masterful collaborative effort with the Wooster Group has done nothing more than restructure the dream pattern of the nightmare.
The mind in question is that of Brutus Jones, a black American railroad porter with a criminal past who has set himself up as the ruthless dictator of a tiny Caribbean nation. When the only white man on the island, a shifty trader named Smithers (Scott Shepherd), warns this self-styled emperor that the natives are getting restless under his cruel exploitation, Jones boasts of his plan to bag up his spoils and escape through the jungle to a boat he has hidden to take him to Martinique.
“Think dese ig’nerent bush niggers dat ain’t got brains enuff to know deir own names even can catch Brutus Jones?” he says, bragging that he has convinced his superstitious subjects of his godlike invincibility.
But when the enslaved islanders revolt and Jones heads for the forest to make good his escape, he becomes disoriented by the war drums and plunges deeper and deeper into his own superstitious mind.
At various stages of his journey, he hallucinates a sequence of terrifying chapters in the annals of his race — the voodoo rituals of his African ancestors, the slave ships and sales auctions that branded them as private property, and his own savage treatment at the hands of white men on a prison chain gang.
By the time his angry subjects bring him down with a silver bullet, the emperor has already fallen victim to the demons of his own mind — and to a history that can’t be wiped out by any magic bullet.
Ever since O’Neill’s drama was first staged by the Provincetown Players in 1920, people have been fooling around with its theatrical elements. (Besides being performed by both white and black actors, it has been played by puppets, set to African tribal dances and put to music as an opera.) What the Wooster Group has done — by stripping away all sense of realism and assigning the central role to a white actress in blackface — is so alienating that every line of the text stands out in relief.
In this naked form, the show becomes a raw study in the artificial and inhuman nature of power. Laid out on Jim Clayburgh’s stark stage, examined under Jennifer Tipton’s clinical lighting, and pounded into our skulls by the relentless drumbeat of David Linton’s percussive score, the symbols of power and subjugation are both overwhelming and subtle.
With her face black as pitch, her body swathed in voluminous costume, and her voice booming with masculine strength, Valk embodies all the physical and historical power that Brutus Jones has dared to assume by making himself emperor.
In place of the traditional dictatorial trappings that figure in the play — the military uniform, the boots and the whip — she is swathed in the imperial robes of a Japanese shogun and rolls around the stage on an office chair — the throne of a modern-day captain of industry.
Projecting her crystal-clear words through a microphone, she intones her lines in the authoritative voice of the media. When she joins Smithers (the personification of white cowardice in Shepherd’s sniveling impersonation) in a stylized dance of exultant evil, she even gives Jones a claim on aesthetic superiority.
These are the signifiers of domination that break down in the jungle, along with all the other artificial vestiges of civilization. And while the company is surprisingly discreet about recording the emperor’s demise on its ever-present video monitors, there is something ineffably sad about the end of this fabulous monster.