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While Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones was certainly controversial upon its opening, and remains controversial for its depiction of blacks, it was not banned. When O’Neill’s play opened in 1920 in New York, black actors in mainstream productions were still a serious rarity. Usually, African Americans were portrayed by white actors in black-face. The Emperor Jones, in short, was breaking racial barriers, which was certainly controversial. The atmosphere in which this production opened was captured well by the highly-esteemed critic Alexander Woollcott in his review, the link to which is provided below:
“. . .it [O’Neill’s play] weaves a most potent spell, thanks partly to the force and cunning of the author, thanks partly in the admirable playing of Charles S. Gilpin in a title role so predominant that the play is little more than a dramatic monologue. His is an uncommonly powerful and imaginative performance, in several respects unsurpassed this season in New York. Mr. Gilpin is a negro.”
Note that last sentence: “Mr. Gilpin is a negro.” That was a truly major development in major American theater productions. Black actors were cast in plays produced by and for African American audiences, but not in major Broadway productions. O’Neill’s reputation, however, was sufficient to help break the racial barrier.
If The Emperor Jones is controversial today, it is for its depiction of blacks, which, entirely understandably, reflected the perceptions of early-20th Century America. The character of Brutus Jones – the first name clearly indicative of characters both threatening and violent – is today considered a stereotype of the large, imposing, threatening black male. For this reason, contemporary productions of the play are usually accompanied by social commentary regarding race relations in the United States.
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