Poughkeepsie - Ellwoodson Williams wanted to portray the character Brutus Jones since his college days. Unfortunately, the Eugene O’Neill production "Emperor Jones" never made it to his collegiate stage. However, now, thirty years later, the veteran actor has been given that opportunity.
Williams was joined by a cast of seven others in this past weekend’s one act play, presented by the New Day Repertory Company at Poughkeepsie’s Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center. The local staging became a reality when New Days’ founder, Rodney K. Douglas, recently viewed the production in New York City and was so impressed by it he wanted to bring it home.
"Emperor Jones," the first American play to offer a racially integrated cast to a Broadway audience and feature a black actor in its leading role, was a groundbreaker when it was unveiled in the 1930’s. Its subject matter centers around a charming African-American Pullman Porter, Jones, who despite a shady past, has managed to manipulatively recreate his identity as a dictator over fellow Negroes in a West Indies island. Once his true self is detected by the very natives he tries to subjugate, we follow the angry and confused Jones character as he runs for his life through the Great Forest. With themes of race and racial oppression of the 1920’s weaved throughout its seven scene plot, "Emperor Jones" continues to have strong relevance today according to Williams.
"The theme of this play is anti-dictatorship, which is such an important one to see, as it never ends; we saw it with Stalin and Mussolini, and we still see it today in Iraq and other countries," pointed out Williams, who has worked with some of the top actors, directors and playwrights in theater and film since his first appearance on stage at age fourteen. "We learn in this play how very important freedom is."
The "Emperor’s" feigned run at dictatorship comes to a screeching halt when he meets his demise at the expense of his very own silver bullet. The weapon of destruction itself is symbolic of Jones’ own greed and ambition. His death, although outwardly justified, still manages to evoke empathy in many viewers.
"Brutus Jones is a criminal, who has killed several people, but he still remains very greedy and wants more power, yet is not qualified to have it," explained Williams of his Macbeth-like character, burdened by the inner demons and ghosts of his race. "However, Brutus still does have redeeming qualities and value; he is uneducated but street smart and knows he is doing wrong."
It’s that recognition of flaw that Williams further concludes will earn him a spot in heaven. It further makes for an extremely complicated protagonist, one whose first appearance on stage set an example for America’s present level of racial parity in the arts.
"This is a really great play to be a part of," pointed out another cast member, Ashley Bowles, who portrayed Lem and Jeff and has previously played the multi-layered Brutus Jones role. "I really enjoyed playing the Chief in this production, as he’s the one who gets the crook, Brutus Jones."
By the play’s final scenes, we encounter a bare-chested, exhausted and distraught Jones, who has been in an increasingly debilitating flight for over six hours. That "journey" has included flashbacks of his murderous actions along with slave status at an auction. His paranoid and disheveled ensuing image is in direct contrast to his opening scene appearance, complete with a confident demeanor of witty phrases and a flashy smile, while sporting a colorful, aristocratic jacket, gold earring and a revolver. In both scenes, Jones is surrounded by Smithers, his Caucasian nemesis. Dutchess County-based veteran actor Tyler Barden had the chance to depict that character in the New Day Repertory Company staging.
"Playing Smithers has been a really good opportunity for me to work a Cockney accent," said Barden, "I once again enjoyed the fact that I have the opening and closing lines in the play."
Smithers utters those closing lines just after a dead Emperor Jones is dragged off stage. The vision resounds with meaning.
"This play is a reminder that all dictators ultimately meet their tragic ends," said Williams
The New Day Repertory Theater’s mission seeks "to provide a quality experience for actors and audiences that is intellectually challenging, provocative, socially relevant and culturally enriching." Serving as an outreach to schools and the community its focus is on racial harmony, achieved through speaking to the universal human experience.
The Poughkeepsie-based acting company, New Day, will return to the stage Saturday, February 20th at 8 p.m., when it performs Edward Albee’s AT HOME AT THE ZOO at Beacon’s Howland Cultural Center.