If you think mounting a modern-day minstrel
show is flirting with disaster, you’re right. Although, in the
case of The Wooster Group’s blackface version of "The Emperor
Jones" (at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO through April 2),
the troublesomeness isn’t due to offensiveness or outrageousness
so much as ostentation.
There’s definitely a disarming logic informing Elizabeth LeCompte’s directorial conceit. Written in an early form of Ebonics that only a white man could conceive, this early Eugene O’Neill one-act (circa 1920) skirts disturbing stereotypes even as it constantly evades out-and-out racism. Civil rights activists and formidable actors alike, Paul Robeson and Ossie Davis, both tackled the tragic central role at certain points in their careers; here, LeCompte chooses to go in the opposite direction by turning the protagonist into a growling, groveling, eye-popping, teeth-flashing Sambo.
O’Neill’s expressionist script is incredibly spare, almost skeletal. It’s not a diatribe on race; it’s a metaphysical examination of karmic retribution. Aside from a few minor characters at the start and end of the play, "The Emperor Jones" is a prolonged monologue in which an escaped convict confronts the demons of his past - a slave auctioneer, the chain gang, a murdered gambler, even his oppressed ancestry coming over on the slave ships. That he’s simultaneously fleeing enraged islanders, weary of his dictatorial reign, adds a sense of urgency to his hallucinations.
Never one to leave source material untouched, The Wooster Group pares it down even further: The cast is now two actors (and a stagehand who occasionally gets in on the action). The set is a wheelchair, a pair of television monitors and two fake palms.
You’ll also find the company’s signature multi-media components, but intended or not, the video montages of primitively altered close-ups and abstract whirls of red, only further date the undertaking. Indeed, the small monitors at the back of the stage act as unintended references to the company’s genesis in the mid-1970s. The one truly effective modernization is David Linton’s score, which stylizes the crescendo of drumbeats that O’Neill requested into a club-worthy layering of rhythms.
Using the transgressive art of minstrelry to reinterpret yet another classic American text is in keeping with Wooster Group’s 30-year history: This intrepid, envelope-pushing ensemble has always taken an aggressive, anarchistic approach when deconstructing and appropriating masterpieces such as Arthur Miller’s "The Crucible" (for their "L.S.D." in 1981), Gertrude Stein’s "Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights" (for "House/Lights" in 1996), and Thornton Wilder’s "Our Town" (which was eventually sourced for part of "Route 1 & 9" in 1981), which also incorporated blackface. "The Emperor Jones," which reveals little dramaturgical tampering in comparison with other Wooster Group projects and has been part of the company’s rotating repertory of plays since 1992, is but the latest example of how LeCompte and her cohorts revitalize familiar material by forcing it to serve purposes contrary to those initially intended.
At least in theory.
In execution, the current staging feels like an old experiment that’s lost all its potency. After the initial shock registers and fades, there’s little elucidation and certainly no epiphany. Which just goes to show you that sometimes yesterday’s breakthrough is tomorrow’s anachronism. Kate Valk, dressed in Kabuki drag, has been cast against type both in terms of gender and race; she remains a daring actress as she engages in her initially cringe-worthy mugging and incongruous - if diverting - modern dance interludes.
But her performance quickly plateaus into a series of pre-set gestures and affectations. You begin to wish that she was even bolder, even broader, more over-the-top, more beyond-the-pale. There’s nothing timid in her recreation to be sure, but there’s also nothing intimidating about it either.
Far from horrifying or challenging the (nearly all-white) audience, Valk mildly discomforts them, and then leaves them feeling self-congratulatory at having politely sat through something avant-garde. Since there’s nothing savagely satirical and since the style undermines the narrative, what’s left is an extended sketch with a jarring punchline that’s neither pointed nor provocative.
Today, you look at the work of young companies like Big Art Group or The Neutrino Projects - two contemporary troupes which blur the lines between film and theater in fascinating ways - and you realize that while The Wooster Group was a pioneer for interdisciplinary stagecraft, they’re not pioneers in that sense anymore. What was once novel has become codified; they’ve got a set theatrical vocabulary that’s as entrenched as that of the Berliner Ensemble or the Comedie Francaise. When it works, you’re aware of a one-of-a-kind vision that helped to redefine the parameters of theater. When it doesn’t, what comes to mind is the Emperor’s clothes.
The Wooster Group’s production of "The Emperor Jones" runs through April 2, Wednesday through Sunday at 8 pm, at St. Ann’s Warehouse (38 Water St., between Main and Front streets, in DUMBO). Tickets are $25-$37.50. For reservations, call (718) 254-8779. For more information, visit www.artsat