Menu Bar

Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 9


Breaking Boundaries:
The Wooster Group’s Deconstruction of The Emperor Jones

Ali Czarnecki
Miami University

The Wooster Group’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones was a unique and captivating performance that left its audience asking questions and ultimately pondering perceptions of racism within American history. Honoring O’Neill’s script by embracing his original text, director Elizabeth LeCompte’s 1992 production used uncommon performative aspects to portray a daring interpretation which featured powerful sensory elements. Using few props and characters, the production utilized distinct dialect inflected with minstrelsy affect, costume, make-up, and sound score to display a powerful interpretation of the original text. Arguably the most important aspect of the Wooster production was the choice of casting a white woman in blackface and drag to portray O’Neill’s main character, Brutus Jones. Through this stylistic and risky choice, the casting in itself commented quite strongly on racial and gender stereotypes. The use of drag and blackface ultimately created a distancing gesture between audience, performance, and race within this modern interpretation of a 1920s text. In this essay, I will argue that through specific and strategic performative aspects and set design, the Wooster Group’s production deconstructed racial stereotypes and social beliefs seen within O’Neill’s original text to challenge modern audiences to think critically about character, gender, identity, and their associated stereotypes and prejudices.

O’Neill’s tale of Brutus Jones depicts an African-American man struggling with his need for power and his ultimate downfall as a result of this greed. Jones is sent to jail for killing a man over a game of crap. Able to escape prison and journey to a Caribbean island, he ultimately takes over and rules as emperor over the inhabitants of the land. Jones soon learns that his lowly subjects have gathered to revolt against him, in the inevitable hope of killing him. Using heavy forms of expressionism throughout the remainder of the play, O’Neill dramatizes Jones’s escapes to the forest in the hopes of surviving their attack. His expressionistic quest alone in the woods represents the oppression of the black race and the oppressive forces of colonialism. As the majority of the play takes place with Jones alone in the woods, he experiences continual flashbacks and constructed visions such as slave auctions and the Middle Passage.

The Wooster Group’s interpretation of the text created a simplified performance in terms of set design and props. Instead of centering the performance around scenes within the emperor’s room and then eventually throughout the forest as O’Neill’s script calls for, screen backdrops were used instead to create a single digital effect, arguably creating a more meaningful, centered, and focalized message. Aoife Monks’ article, “‘Genuine Negros and Real Bloodhounds’: Cross-Dressing, Eugene O’Neill, the Wooster Group, and The Emperor Jones,” describes the simplicity of the set as follows: “The set was a bare white box, and the only objects used were a television monitor placed upstage, two microphones on stands through which the actors spoke, and a large chair on wheels, which was covered with brown fake fur” (Monks 540). Monks continues to describe how these stylistic design techniques, though seemingly irrelevant, worked to enrich O’Neill’s play and the overall effect. By creating a simple set design with few props, the Wooster Group ultimately forced the audience to focus solely on the characters and the dialogue as the driving factors of the performance, helping to further drive O’Neill’s arguments.

Theatre critic Robert Brustein, in his review, “The Two O’Neills,” also gives an in-depth analysis of the Wooster Group’s set design and specialized choices. In his view, the stage is bare except for a white linoleum floor. He continues his description of the props and the sounds of the set when he writes: “Each actor carries a microphone, which also has a prop function (a walking stick for Jones, a bat for Smitty). Valk sits in a high chair on wheels, rolling her eyes and roaring her lines through a reddened mouth, a bit like Hamm in Beckett's Endgame. The mikes and the music (often raucous rock) are set at a high decibel level” (Brustein 27). Given this bare stage, the audience was therefore able to concentrate on the characters and dialogue with few other outside distractions.

The Wooster Group further simplified O’Neill’s original play by only staging two characters, that being Jones and Smithers, the white Cockney trader. The production made a wise choice to “trim the fat” of the other characters and allow the audience to solely engage with the two most important entities. Creating a lack of physicality, Smithers’ character was shown as a digitalized “floating head” portrayed behind Jones in the beginning of the play, only materializing later. This stylistic choice once again urged the audience to focus, this time solely on Jones, played by white, female actress Kate Valk. Through this performance decision, the audience was able to fully grasp the effects of drag and blackface in its entirety without any further distractions. Valk discusses this particular design choice in an interview with The Philadelphia Theatre Initiative. In regards to video use, Valk shares, “ [The Emperor Jones] had the smallest cast, and [Director Elizabeth LeCompte’s] idea for the visions of Jones was abstracted into the video, and we used a lot of the notions of the ghost plays from Noh theatre and the abstractions of the space of the theatre not being literal, being what they referred to in Noh as phantasmagoric” (4). Valk’s remarks on LeCompte using Noh theatre techniques, a classical form of Japanese musical drama, shows not only an understanding of her choice to use videos in order to create a ghost-like atmosphere for the play, but also her complete faith and appreciation of the technique. The use of Noh techniques within the production can be seen from the stage makeup to the screens. Carl Nilsson-Polias reviewed the performance at the 2009 Hong Kong Arts Festival and remarked that one could see the Japanese Noh theatre displayed in the costuming and in the body language of the actors. He expands upon this in detail when he explains, “As with the visual aesthetic of the show, Valk’s investigation of masks is indebted to the Noh tradition. Indeed, there are videotapes of Noh theatre that play on a loop on screens that face the actors—Valk is given to watching them as a point of focus…she can randomly incorporate gestures from the videos in her performance as a way of keeping things fresh, all without the audience’s knowledge” (Carl Nilsson-Polias 1). Through this explanation, it becomes clear that Noh techniques are made prevalent through not only obvious visuals such as masks and makeup, but also through screen images, movement and the overall gestural language of the performance.

Continuing upon the use of video as an element in itself, Valk says, “you could be here by the river or you could be in your madness in the same theatrical space. So it kind of could transcend time and place and go from literal to something fantastic” (4). Through Valk’s explanation of the director’s concept and stage set-up, it becomes clear that the reduction of characters juxtaposed with the video/screen portrayal instead of physical objects ultimately created a transition of time, space, and place between the audience and Jones’ character. With the development of these transitions, LeCompte’s concept was therefore a success in aiding in a distancing audience-character relationship. A visual representation of the use of space on stage can be seen within the following photo. The photograph directly exemplifies minimal use of physical objects on stage with a central focus on Smithers’ figure on the background screen.

Jones in front played by Kate Valk. Smithers in back played by Willem Dafoe.
Photo provided by Argos Art.

Focusing specifically on how the stage setup and television interact within the production, Anna Posner’s piece, “Watching the Boa Constrictor Uncoil: Sexual Desire and ‘The Emperor Jones’” breaks down the prompt book, scene-by-scene. Posner writes, “Each scene in the jungle found its reductive image in the television: images of trains appeared in scene three, alluding to the literal way that Jones escapes his fate; in scene five, the television presented distorted images of a slave-auction reenactment” (Posner 2). Through these examples and specific scenes, it becomes clear that LeCompte strategically used the television as an aid for setting up not only images, but for further creating literal allusions to the scenery. Posner continues her analysis with another scene when she writes, “Jones’s traumatic memory of riding in the cargo of a slave ship became a child’s scribble of a toy ship framed by two large trees in scene six” (2). Although seemingly small and potentially overlooked, the television played a very crucial role within the overall production. Posner ultimately argues that the use of the screen called for the audience having to “work” to understand the true meanings and implications of the projected images. Ultimately, the screens were able to demonstrate the physical scenery while also allowing the audience to gather a visual representation of the severity of slavery.

By casting a white female in blackface the production created a further commentary on racial stereotypes and embodiedness through performance. Monks comments on this idea when he writes, “The fraught arena of the representation of black identity by white artists brings to light the embattled position that the ‘authenticity’ of the actor’s body occupies in performance” (542). I quite agree with Monks’ point that the Wooster performance highlighted the faulty ideas of authenticity. The production inevitably took the racism seen within the original text and created critical distancing through the arguably shocking stylistic choice of blackface. Within this analysis, it becomes clear that Valk’s embodied performance causes audiences to further remark upon the racial concepts seen within both text and visual production through their own personal connections and actions towards racial prejudices.

While O’Neill’s text worked to show racism through language and slave interactions, the Wooster Group amplified and strengthened the text through unique performative tactics. By casting a white woman to perform a black male part, the Wooster Group created a heightened sense of gender roles and racialization. Within Judith Butler’s piece, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” she tackles the issues surrounding the idea of gender as a performative series of actions. In relation to the idea of Valk’s casting choice and her use of drag, Butler writes:

The transvestite, however, can do more than simply express the distinction between  sex and gender, but challenges, at least implicitly, the distinction between appearance  and reality that structures a good deal of popular thinking about gender identity. If the ‘reality’ of gender is constituted by the performance itself, then there is no recourse  to an essential and unrealized ‘sex’ or ‘gender’ which gender performances ostensibly express. Indeed, the transvestite's gender is as fully real as anyone whose performance complies with social expectation. (Butler 7)

Butler’s philosophy suggests that the Wooster Group’s use of drag challenged the audience to ponder gender identity. Both Butler and the Wooster Group investigate how gender is ultimately constructed through performance. By performing ritualized motions and codes associated with black males, Valk ultimately constructed and conveyed this gendered reality to the audience. In this way, Valk allowed the audience to challenge both appearance and reality in conjunction with sex and gender.

Utilizing this particular stylistic choice, the Wooster Group created a distance between audience, performative body, and concepts of racism seen through images of slave auction and The Middle Passage, among others. Many critics and reviewers have commented on the apparent distance that Valk created. For example, authors Anne L. Fliotsos and Wendy Vierow, in their book, American Women Stage Directors of the Twentieth Century, observe, “Valk is the centerpiece of the staging, her presence an ultimate distancing gesture towards a work with no female roles” (Fliotsos and Vierow 235). The idea of a white actress playing the part of an African-American man directly comments on racial issues while distancing authenticity, ultimately creating an exemplified commentary on racial concepts. Posner also comments on this Brechtian distance, which creates an alienating effect, when she writes, “The embodiment, or lack thereof, of Valk as Jones acted as the Group’s most powerful distancing mechanism in a Brechtian sense, creating a critical distance between the audience and the performance” (1). She furthers this idea, when she says, “This distance acted as the antithesis of the visceral connection that audiences felt towards Charles Gilpin as Jones in the 1920s …Valk’s portrayal of Jones potentially allowed audiences in 2006 to recognize their own complicity within the creation of racial stereotypes and fantasies” (1).

Aside from the use of blackface and drag, a major part of this embodied performance was the costume design. Playing the role of a male character, Valk had to dress in drag in order to represent Jones. Valk and LeCompte chose the specific style of a Kabuki robe for the costume in order to further embody the notions of the Japanese Noh theatre. Kabuki was yet another form of Japanese theatre, and this style was often highlighted or associated with the use of magnificent and eye-catching costumes. The use of blackface and the embellished drag can be seen clearly in the following photo by Paula Court.

Kate Valk as Emperor Jones. Photo by Paula Court.

Valk describes the costume choice in her interview with The Philadelphia Initiative Theatre: “But for me, the very first thing was the costume, and I couldn’t really rehearse unless I was in full drag, as it were… and so the robe and the boots and the black mask were the first thing that came, and then the idea to play Willem as feminine, as a geisha... And so we constructed it from there with him in the feminine geisha makeup” (5). In these lines, Valk not only describes the importance of the drag costume to her performance, but also in relation to Smithers’ character, played by Willem Dafoe, who appeared feminized through the use of Geisha makeup. Through this decision, Smithers’ character greatly contrasted with Jones in terms of physical appearance. In this way, Valk’s performance was enhanced through not only her own use of blackface and drag, but also through the feminization of the only other character in the performance. Jones’ character comes to represent an even more concentrated concept of strength and power in comparison.

Critic Chris Jones from The Chicago Tribune acknowledged how the Wooster Group revealed stereotypes as cultural constructs within the performed interpretation. Jones says, “But by casting a white woman as Jones, LeCompte lays bare the play’s stereotypes. As played by the simply astonishing Kate Valk—who vocalizes, directly into a microphone, every beat, grunt and contortion of O’Neill’s faux-minstrel dialect—Jones becomes not so much a man but a warped cultural construct” (Jones 1). Through this explanation, Chris Jones suggests that the performance ultimately created a main character who exemplified racial and gendered stereotypes. Honoring the idea that the Wooster Group wished to bring awareness to the issues of racial concepts within America’s history, Jones remarks, “Valk’s bravura verbal performance is at once a linguistic tour de force and a guided tour of American ignorance and racial malevolence that merely took off its makeup and went linguistically underground” (1). I agree with Jones’ analysis that the Wooster Group’s performance indeed brought racial stereotypes to light for critical analysis, rather than shoving them under the rug as has arguably been done for many years.

Valk’s acting choices in particular remains critical in terms of dialect and pronunciation. With Valk being a white Irish American, it was extremely important to embody the language and dialect of the piece as it was portrayed within O’Neill’s text. Through her performance, Valk over embellished or over exaggerated the black dialect seen within O’Neill’s writing. Through this over exaggeration, the performance conveyed a minstrel show-like feel. In Eric Lott’s book, Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, he discusses the general opinion of minstrelsy from its very early and racially charged roots. He writes, “From our vantage point, the minstrel show indeed seems a transparently racist curiosity, a form of leisure that, in inventing and ridiculing the slow-witted but irrepressible ‘plantation darky’ and the foppish ‘northern dandy negro,’ conveniently rationalized racial oppression,” (Lott 15). Within this mindset, Lott explains that minstrelsy is often viewed as nothing but an extremely racial and provocative method of undermining the black race. Yet, he argues against this strict position as being the only feasible mindset when he says, “I want to suggest, however, that the audiences involved in early minstrelsy were not universally derisive of African Americans or their culture, and that there was a range of responses to the minstrel show which points to an instability or contradiction in the form itself. My project is to examine that instability for what it may tell us about the racial politics of culture,” (15). With this outlook, Lott suggests that rather than being fully racist and ignorant entertainment, minstrel shows can be importantly viewed as learning tools for the general depiction and stereotypes of African Americans. In this way, minstrels can accurately display the politics of the time. He also points to how some minstrel performers subverted racial stereotypes while performing them. Lott writes, “My study documents in early blackface minstrelsy the dialectical flickering of racial insult and racial envy, moments of domination and moments of liberation…at others gesturing toward a specific kind of political or sexual danger, and all constituting a peculiarly American structure of racial feeling,” (18). Through his study of minstrel shows and the time surrounding their creation and popularity in U.S. culture, Lott ultimately suggests that minstrelsy played a crucial role in conveying subversive performance practices, and stereotypes of the time, similar to what the Wooster Group portrays within their performance.

Direct similarities to minstrel shows can be seen Valk’s performance, especially in terms of her dialect. O’Neill scholar Johan discusses the performative dialect seen within the Wooster Group’s interpretation. Callens writes:

Her guttural voice simulation, excessive laughter ("'Ha, ha, ha") and vernacular pronunciation (especially of the first-person-singular pronoun, "I/Ah," central to this psychodrama), combined with her audible panting from exhaustion after Jones's hike across the plain or the rolling of her eyes in his moments of distress (with the eye-whites possibly exaggerated with white make-up as in blackface acts): these formed clear indices of the deliberately caricatural. over-acted dimension of her performance (whether that should be considered expressionist or melodramatic). (Callen 45)

I agree with Callen’s detailed description that the dialect and citation of minstrelsy exemplifies this idea of exaggerated, over-the-top acting. Yet in doing so, Valk and the Wooster Group used the stereotypes to critique the racism that is present within O’Neill’s original text. Callen furthers this notion when he says, “Together they forced the racial stereotype into the open, making it easier to deal with, as in the excess of melodrama, when conventional values are at stake” (Callen 45). Callen therefore claims that the Wooster Group is successful in raising awareness to the issue of racism that is often overlooked or disregarded entirely. In this way, the whole performance acted as an exaggeration of the racial stereotypes, which, in relation to Lott’s ideas, readers could possibly have skimmed or missed when reading O’Neill’s script.

The importance of maintaining the richness in dialect and language that O’Neill had displayed within his original work was a very important component to Valk’s opinion of not only the piece itself, but of O’Neill as a playwright. In her interview she explained, “to me, it was committing to that, committing to the way he had written it. I don’t think he was writing a naturalist play. I think it was a stroke of his imagination…for instance, when he writes ‘I ends yo’ stealin’ on dis yearth,’ it’s D-I-S and then Y-E-A-R-T-H…So it’s not ‘this here earth,’ it’s ‘dis yearth’” (9). Valk explains that O’Neill himself was also trying to exaggerate and play upon the stereotypical language of black dialect. Discovering this trait from researching his life and writing, Valk only worked to further embellish the dialect to create a stronger concept of racial stereotypes through the Wooster Group’s performance. With this dialectic choice, Valk was able to accurately portray not only black dialect, but also the ways in which O’Neill had wished for it to be represented in a social and analytical construct.

An array of mixed public opinions resulted from the Wooster Group’s production. Backlash from many in the black press, specifically seen in 2009 from Chicago publishing company and African-American group, Third World Press, came as a result of the minstrel-like use of blackface. In a statement from Bennett Jones Johnson, vice president of Third World Press, the organization explained: “If a black actor were starring in it here, we would have no problem. What we object to is the minstrelsy aspect, which we consider both an anachronism and an insult. Minstrelsy has the same emotional connotations as lynching,” (Trachta 1). Through this critique of the production’s stylistic choices, it becomes apparent that some members of the black community viewed the production as a direct form of racism, rather than as a performance which worked to highlight and raise awareness about racial prejudices. In order to defend the production and the harsh backlash, executive producer of the Goodman Theatre, Roche Schulfer, noted: “This Wooster Group production has been performed for 15 years at theaters around the world. And the overwhelming response to it is that it is not racist, but that it undermines racist and sexist stereotypes through the use of masks and Japanese theater techniques," (1). While The Wooster Group had one intended purpose for the production, many critics were quick to judge and toss up red flags as a result of the controversial use of blackface before they were able to truly grasp what the theatre company was trying to accomplish.

Despite a handful of unhappy critics as a result of the exaggerated dialect, drag, blackface, and dialogue dealing with racial and colonial issues, the overall performance received highly regarded reviews. In Charles Isherwood’s article from The New York Times entitled “An Emperor Who Tops What O’Neill Imagined,” he discusses the success of the performance when he writes:

But we remain, at all times, powerfully aware that we are witnessing an actress fashioning, with superb precision, a simulacrum of a stereotype. And this heightened awareness of Ms. Valk's performance as an artificial construct shapes our perception of her character as a man spouting words and attitudes that destiny has forced him to emit. We see Brutus Jones himself as an actor helplessly playing a role written by the savage errors of American history (Isherwod 1).

Isherwood believes that the company’s unique interpretation accurately displayed the “savage errors” that were seen within America at the time in which the play was written. Furthering the opinion that the play was successful in its performance he says, “These and other peculiar touches transform Brutus Jones into a flailing doll being yanked toward destruction by unseen hands. That Ms. Valk is somehow able to infuse this artfully outlandish performance with a poignant sense of entrapped humanity is remarkable” (1). Concurring with his statements, Valk undoubtedly embodied a performance which contrasted the cruel social actions with the internal insecurities as a result of these prejudices.

The Wooster Group’s deconstruction of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones undoubtedly used multiple varieties of communication, concepts, set design, visual elements, acting choices, and stylistic details to produce a captivating performance. Through strategically creating a simple set design, casting a white, female lead role to act in blackface and drag, using ghost-like imagery to further embody the concepts of Noh theatre (also displayed within the Kabuki costumes), the Wooster Group brought to life racial and social prejudices and stereotypes that were once a lawfully dominant part of American society. The interpretive performance ultimately took a risk in deconstructing these racial stereotypes, and in turn they were rewarded with a production which successfully broke down barriers of racial concepts that have been a major issue in American history for decades.


Brustein, Robert. "The Two O'Neills." New Republic 218.17 (1998): 27.

Butler, Judith. "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519-531.

Callens, Johan. "Black Is White, I Yells It Out Louder 'N Deir Loudest": Unraveling The
Wooster Group's The Emperor Jones." Eugene O'Neill Review 26.(2004): 43-69.

Court, Paula. The Emperor Jones Kate Valk. 2006. Photograph. The New York Times. 14 Mar. 2006. 1. <>.

The Emperor Jones. 2000. Photograph. Argos Center for Art & Media. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.<>.

Fliotsos, Anne L, and Wendy Vierow. American Women Stage Directors of the Twentieth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008. Print

Isherwood, Charles. "An Emperor Who Tops What O'Neill Imagined." The New York Times. 14 Mar. 2006. 1-2.

Jones, Chris. "Blackface and a Revelatory 'Emperor Jones'." Chicago Tribune. 07 Jan.
2009. 1.

Lott, Eric. "Blackface and Blackness: The Minstrel Show in American Culture." Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. 15-20. Print.

Monks, Aoife. “Genuine Negroes And Real Bloodhounds”: Cross-Dressing, Eugene O'Neill, The Wooster Group, And “The Emperor Jones”." Modern Drama 48.3 (2005): 540-564.

Nilsson-Polias, Carl. "2009 Honk Kong Arts Festival." Rev. of The Emperor Jones.
CNP. 15 Apr. 2009. Web. 10 Feb. 2014. <>.

Stern, Sherry. "Quick Takes: Group Protests Blackface Play." Los Angeles Times. 10 Jan. 2009. 1.

Trachta, Ali. "Actress in Blackface Causes Stir at Goodman Theatre." The Chicagoist. 8
Jan. 2009. Web. 22 Jan. 2014. <>.

Valk, Kate. "Kate Valk Talks about The Emperor Jones and Her Work with the Wooster Group." Interview by Fran Kumin and Tom Stellar. Philadelphia Theatre Initiative, 7 Sept. 2007. Web. 20 Oct. 2013. <>.


Copyright © 1999-2014