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Despite all the reading up I did prior to going to see the Wooster Group‘s much-talked about take on Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, the explosive initial production of the Goodman’s O’Neill Festival, I still wasn’t prepared for that first glimpse of the great actress Kate Valk in blackface as Brutus Jones, the titular lead character.  I was stunned.  I was infuriated.  I felt highly uncomfortable.  But then, as director Elizabeth LeCompte’s brilliantly, savagely, provocatively conjured world, a world greater than the intentions of the text, took shape and grabbed hold, I moved beyond that initial reaction.  Some people didn’t and froze at that first view of a Caucasian actress in blackface playing a black man, as was evident during the emotion-laden talkback after the Friday evening performance I attended, and I couldn’t blame them.  I think the audience response to this particular production could only be a highly individual one, refracted through the person’s experience and world view.  I ultimately felt, as the show progressed, that blackface, or minstrelsy, was one of the theatrical devices (which also included elements of the Japanese Noh theater, video projections, and electronically synthesized sound and musical scores) that the Wooster Group and LeCompte used to construct a production that challenged the audience’s preconceptions about race and gender, yes, but also our views on colonizer and colonized, oppressor and oppressed, survivor and non-survivor, civilized and primitive.  The production was jarring, thought-provoking, distressing, highly unforgettable; theater, not as entertainment or spectacle, but as a charged debate between the practitioner and his or her audience members.  It was theater at the highest level, which cultural-savvy Chicagoans were very fortunate to experience, despite the limited five night performance schedule. 

I can’t imagine how anyone can mount The Emperor Jones, one of O’Neill’s early plays, written in 1920, today, as is, without employing highly theatrical and stylized elements to paint its still-harrowing portrayal of a man’s descent into psychological hell.  First of all,  the character of Brutus Jones is an antiquated, discomfiting stereotype of a black man written from the perspective of a white man in the 1920s (complete with dialogue peppered with “dems” and “disses” and the n-word).  The character of Smithers, the only other speaking role in the play, is also a highly-exaggerated portrayal of a bigoted, uneducated, thieving white man.  There has to be a lot of distance between a contemporary audience and the text so that the characters are seen as stylized, unrealistic, and vehicles for provocative conversation, rather than as real people (which, I don’t think, was also O’Neill’s intent).  The play still has very potent themes around how a person who has been marginalized and oppressed throughout his or her lifetime, can turn around and take on the psychological persona of the oppressor when handed absolute power, themes that should still be intriguing and resonant to a modern audience.  I also think the play provides a good view into an example of early expressionism in the American theater.  These are valid arguments for staging the play and not letting it rot in the dusty shelves of forgotten American dramaturgy.  Stylization, artifice, theatricality are the characteristics that will make this play even remotely acceptable to a modern audience and I think the Wooster Group magnificently realized them in this production.  I think the use of Noh theater elements (the dancing, the whiteface – yes, Scott Shepherd, so brilliant in last year’s Gatz, as Smithers is wearing whiteface – the exaggerated delivery of lines) was so terrifically apt and illuminating.   I think the use of a pseudo-boxing ring to stage the action was inspired, since this set literally boxed in the world of the play and, again, emphasized to the audience that what we were seeing was not reality.  I think the use of sound – layered, cacophonous, enveloping - was spectacular, both underscoring the emotions and effectively continuing to draw us into this conjured-up universe.

But this production is unimaginable without the towering, legendary work of Kate Valk, one of the most acclaimed experimental theater artists working today.  It was a riveting, masterful, one-of-a-kind, high-impact performance from a purely technical perspective:  she made you believe that she was a black man, one that was both equally pathetic and sympathetic, maddening and poignant, in his behavior, outlook, and motivations. Valk and her microphone commanded the Goodman’s Owen stage physically, vocally, emotionally, like no one had in any of the productions I had previously seen in the space.   But it was also a challenging and disturbing performance from a purely representational basis:  here was a woman playing an oppressive, powerfully-corrupt man.  I won’t even begin to discuss the possible gender-and-power-related readings of this production, but I think by having Valk play Brutus Jones in this manner, LeCompte certainly had themes that were more far-reaching than the original O’Neill text had.

The talkback right after the performance was one of the most intense and most stimulating that I had ever been to, and was one of the most well-attended (I’d say 80% of the night’s audience stayed).  The audience had highly-charged, often emotional, opinions about the piece:  some were offended, others were challenged to look at their own preconceptions regarding race and gender, some were intrigued by the artistic choices that the Wooster Group employed.  There was no consensus.  What was there though was an energized group of people willing to engage actively and tenaciously with the artists.  For that, I’m grateful to the Goodman and the Wooster Group.  Ultimately, for me, the only relevant theater is theater that can enable a discussion between audience and artist.  Anything else is like a TV sitcom, and why would anyone go to the theater for that?

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