Production History: The Emperor Jones

Production History: The Emperor Jones

Charles Gilpin in The Emperor Jones. Photograph by Mary Dale Clarke
Charles Gilpin in The Emperor Jones. Photograph by Mary Dale Clarke 










[Charles S. Gilpin as Jones and Jasper Deeter as Smithers, (top); Congo witch doctor approaching Jones, (bottom).]

The first production of The Emperor Jones was produced by the Provincetown Players and opened on Macdougal Street at the Playwrights Theater on 1 November 1920. The play soon moved to Broadway and ran for 204 performances. Black actor Charles Gilpin played the title role, the first time an important black role was not played by a white man in black-face. There were 3 New York revivals; Paul Robeson played the title character in the 1925 production (Murphy 188).



The Emperor Jones


The 1933 film titled The Emperor Jones. Adapted by DuBose Heyward from the play by Eugene O’Neill. The film featured Paul Robeson in the title role. The film adds about half an hour of new backstory for the character Brutus Jones.

The Emperor Jones
José Limón Dance Company

“This dance version elaborates on the central theme, that of the superstitious terror of the hunted emperor. In the style of a free fantasy, the dance makes no attempt to adhere to the play’s sequence, but rather seeks to give it another dimension. There are a series of episodes which concern Jones’ visions and hallucinations of his earlier life” ( – The Emperor Jones).


The Wooster Group:

Alex Katz's poster for The Wooster Group's production of The Emperor Jones.
Alex Katz’s poster for The Wooster Group production

The Wooster Group’s addition to the cannon of The Emperor Jones was unsurprisingly a new and shocking look at O’Neill’s text. In addition to the clear and present racial tones in the text of the play, the Wooster Group added an even clearer visual image when they decided to have Brutus Jones portrayed by a white female wearing blackface.

The show does vary from other Wooster Group production in technical aspects in that their rendition of Jones is rather light on video or projection use. Director Elizabeth LeCompte also opted against using the drum beat called for in O’Neill’s stage directions. The set design of Jim Clayburgh’s stands as baren and minimalistic.

The Wooster Group started rehearsals for this production in August of 1992. The first production of the show would premier in November of the same year in Frankfurt, Germany. Though the audience reaction was often described as varied, the critical reception of the show was positive from the start. For the next eight years, the show toured Europe as well as making frequent visits to the Performing Garage in Manhattan. In 1996, the project of capturing the performance on video began. And in 1999 the film premiered at the Reade Theater for The New York Video Festival.

from the archives – Kate Valk, Ari Fliakos, & Scott Shepherd in THE EMPEROR JONES (2006) [09.21.12] from The Wooster Group on Vimeo.

The production had a revival for the Eugene O’Neill festival in Chicago in January of 2009.

Clarke, Mary Dale, and Vandamm Studio. N.d. NYPL Digital Gallery- The Emperor Jones. Web.

“ – The Emperor Jones.” – The Emperor Jones. Copyright © 1999-2013, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.