What's it about?
The Emperor Jones dramatizes a self-proclaimed emperor’s descent into madness. He unravels to reveal the deeply damaged man underneath the façade of emperor. (Warning: show makes heavy use of profanity)
What I experienced:
What a difference day and night makes. The first time I went to Irish Rep, I felt very out of place. The crowd was all much older and the play was hard to follow. Coming back again, I definitely was concerned that I’d have a similar experience. But the plot of this play reminded me so much of King Lear, which was one of my favorite Shakespeare plays from high school. Also, I was totally intrigued by the added twist of the Haitian-inspired mysticism and the early 20th century historical background (I did my research).
I usually try not to focus too heavily on actors when I write. However, Brutus Jones (played by Abi Obili) absolutely made my experience this night. I felt exposed and almost frightened by the character he portrayed - both in the play’s beginning, when he is calm and confident, and its conclusion, when he is reduced to panic and paranoia. I never felt like I could settle into the show. I was always on my toes, and it was exciting! It was definitely an “edge of your seat” kind of show. I was transfixed watching this character’s rapid decline, and oddly, I rooted for his downfall. I wanted to see just how far a man could fall from grace - and at what point I no longer wanted to witness it. In the end, I preferred to see him put out of his misery.
I really liked how much of a learning experience this show was. I know, it's complete fiction, however it was surprisingly believable, despite its fantastical and mystical elements. I loved how much I really got a sense of the history. The legacy of slavery, of colonialism, and of race-based social strata were all front and center in this show. I couldn't get enough. It was all controversial and right in your face, so I couldn’t ignore it. The entire show was like peering into the subconscious of those stratified into lower racial and social castes of the time. I sensed the show was trying to impart the lesson that covering up the past only allows it to fester - and I saw the summation of that festering in the mental breakdown of the Emperor Jones, one of the wealthiest and most powerful black men in the show’s context.
This show got me thinking about the effectiveness of shock value in theater. I can assuredly say that I was shocked (often) by things that were said, things that appeared on stage, and the actions of Jones. “Holy shit!” moments were in abundance from start to finish. I was appalled and repulsed but, strangely, that only fostered my intrigue. I feel like once I accepted the premise and the vulgarity of the show, then it became infinitely easier to bear, no matter how lewd. I had to ask myself if I was okay with near constant use of the n-word, or depictions of brutality and torture. If it had been less shocking, I feel like it would have been a less... affecting show.
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