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Imagine a drumbeat, low at first, but insistent. Imagine it gathering energy, growing more urgent, underscoring an hour’s nightmare flight through a moonlit tropical jungle. Imagine creeping unease and shadowy magic and blind panic made palpable—and now imagine yourself a theatergoer watching this in 1920, in a New York weaned on the cheerful sparkle of Ziegfeld and the theatrical hot toddies of David Belasco.

This is The Emperor Jones, an early expressionist experiment from the pen of Eugene O’Neill, a play that charts in 90 dark and dreamy minutes the fall and destruction of a Pullman porter turned ruthless Caribbean potentate. Once a vehicle for the oft-controversial actor and civil-rights figure Paul Robeson, it was the first mainstream American play centered on an African-American character and the first to feature a black star rather than a pale man in blackface; lately, though, it’s been relegated to the Embarrassing Theater wing of the culture museum along with Porgy, Green Pastures, and other plays written by white folk about black people. Now it’s staged with enthusiasm and erudition—if, admittedly, to uneven effect in the preview performance I saw—by the perennial Quixotes of the American Century Theater, which makes a mission of rescuing important work that’s been sitting dusty for one reason or another. And if nothing else, what’s going on at that black box at Gunston is a vivid celebration of theatrical nerve.

Nerve, in fact, is everywhere in evidence: in the script, with its extensive, almost obsessive instructions on creating specific stage pictures and emotional atmospheres; in the plot, which propels Brutus Jones on a swift night journey through the thickets of present dangers and past terrors; in the lead performance of Bus Howard, who wrestles manfully with what’s essentially a monologue grounded in the darting thoughts and rabbity reflexes of a target on the run. Barbara Weber’s drumming, expressive and insidious, is the evening’s pounding, feverish pulse. Even Thomas B. Kennedy’s modular sets, which ultimately slow things down more than they help create the suffocating atmosphere O’Neill is after, are smart and ambitious in and of themselves: Flexible, reconfigurable outcrops of rock and forest spaced at intervals to frame banks of seating, they enfold and implicate the audience, drawing it gradually into the action as the narrative unfolds.

The story opens conventionally enough, in Jones’ island palace, where his throne sits vacant and an empty courtyard signals that the population has taken to the hills. A shady trader (a decidedly underpowered John Tweel) arrives with news that rouses the emperor from his siesta: The locals, first won over and then kept docile by Jones’ luck and his way with a bluff, have gotten wise and grown restive, and today’s the day they’re planning to take him down.

Not to worry, responds Howard’s gaudily uniformed monarch (Rip Claasen’s costumes are another exercise in ambition): Brutus Jones didn’t escape a stateside chain gang and build himself a kingdom by being unprepared. A quick dash to the forest’s edge, a momentary stop to excavate the supplies stashed under a rock, and he’s off through the woods to the coastline and the French warship that’ll carry him to the next island, where a chunk of the royal treasury is safely stashed.

He hasn’t reckoned on the night, of course, and on the voodoo being worked by the pursuing islanders, whose drums begin just as Jones is boasting about his exit strategy and intensify throughout the rest of the proceedings. The play’s first departure from realism and a large measure of its lingering power subsists in those drums, in their ability to draw the audience into Jones’ spiraling anxiety: As apparitions begin to emerge from the tropical night—first “formless fears,” neatly evoked by whirling black-clad figures with flashing red eyes, then troubling visions from his own history and from African histories past—it’s the drums that seem to conjure them, the drums that give spectral images substance enough to unnerve.

And what images! O’Neill had the nerve—the hubris?—to confront his antihero with visions both of his culpability and of his victimization, of personal power-lust and of the larger tragedies of societal corruption. The shade of the gambler Jones killed is followed by the image of the prison overseer whose whip drove him to a second murder and another headlong flight. Hard on the heels of that picture comes a tableau of a Charleston slave auction, then a haunting suggestion of bodies in the hold of a ship carrying human cargo through the Middle Passage, then a ceremonial sacrifice in some West African jungle—a succession of images drawing Jones and the audience alike back beyond personal experience through racial memory, sketching out a suggestion of a terribly flawed man who’s nonetheless as much wronged as wrongdoer. The flappers and the swells at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where The Emperor Jones had its 1920 debut, must have been more or less boggled.

If TACT’s audiences aren’t, it’s largely because Ed Bishop lets the action flag too frequently and lets the artifice intrude too often on the effects it’s intended to create. Scene changes are painfully slow, and the built-up psychological turbulence settles while we wait. Costume effects calculated to suggest instead raise too-specific questions. (Why does the torn-away toe of Jones’ supposedly travel-tattered shoe look as if it’s been neatly sheared off with a razor? Why does that crocodile, which is meant to be horrifying, look like a refugee from a high-school Aida?) Even the “formless fears” make themselves too overt, lingering a crucial few seconds past the shock of their unsettling appearance.

Again, I saw a preview performance plagued by technical snafus, and the production may well tighten up over the course of its run. And for serious theater buffs, Jack Marshall’s typically rich audience guide makes the show on the Gunston stage more engrossing than it might be otherwise. Still, my suspicion is that only a swift, streamlined rush through O’Neill’s gaudy nightmares could convince a modern audience that The Emperor Jones remains a theatrical blueblood—and TACT’s production may be too invested in its externals to move fleetly enough. CP