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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 9


Blackface and Kabuki Theatre:
The Implications of Masks in the Wooster Group’s
Production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones

Lauren Stoner
Miami University

When Kate Valk enters the stage as Brutus Jones, she commands attention with her Kabuki style robe and giant black boots. In drag and in blackface makeup—hair jelled back, neck painted red, and hands remaining white—she delivers her first lines in a way that mimics black minstrelsy, bringing to life and somewhat mocking the dialect that O’Neill penned decades ago. Her first words and her laugh, one of Kyogen and Kabuki fashion, jolt the audience, haunting them throughout the rest of the play. One can’t help the look of horror, shock, and confusion that comes across audience members at the end of the play—as if to say: what did I just see? What just happened? But amidst the shock, the utter confusion and foreboding disgust, one also can’t seem to help the feeling that something genius just happened.

The Wooster Group’s 1998 production of The Emperor Jones—first presented in 1993—and their subsequent 2009 film version are jarring deconstructions of Eugene O’Neill’s originally expressionistic play. The production stars Kate Valk as a cross-dressed, cross-gendered, and black-faced Brutus Jones. Playing her antagonist, Smithers, is a cross-dressed Willem Dafoe. Dafoe, decorated in a Kabuki dress and white face paint, looks less like a sunburned white man (as Jasper Deeters originally portrayed him) and more like a fair and pale geisha (see fig. 1). So what exactly was the Wooster Group trying to accomplish by putting these drastically different theatrical techniques in play with each other?

Fig. 1. Pictured in The Emperor Jones, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte at the Performing Garage theatre in 1998, are (l to r) Kate Valk (Jones) and Willem Dafoe (Smithers). Photo by Mary Gearhart.

In order to get to the very core of the meaning of the Wooster Group’s rendition of this 1920s play, I will break down the performance into three elements: the use of blackface and Kabuki theatre in makeup and costuming, the use of technology to superimpose black and white and deconstruct racial identity, and the choice of acting style in order to further provoke deconstruction of race. All of these decisions break down into two very important theatrical and historical techniques of embodiment on the stage: blackface and Kabuki. By examining the techniques mentioned above, I will also explore the greater implications of physical embodiment and what it means to have a white woman play a black man in blackface while dressed in a Kabuki robe. Moreover I will also investigate what it means to place her alongside a white man dressed as a geisha in pale face, superimposed on a television screen with O’Neill’s native chief, Lem. At the core of this examination we will find that the Wooster group’s use of blackface, costume and technology attempts to establish the authority and authorship of the mask—that the mask is just a façade and nothing else. Beneath the masks of blackface, whiteface, Kabuki, cross-dressing, and other theatrical techniques, there is no single true identity. This essay argues that representation and embodiment of race and gender on stage is simply a theatrical technique. A technique that focuses on the representation and embodiment of character and a practice that reveals to us the complications of presenting race and gender on stage. The Wooster Group’s production of The Emperor Jones deconstructs race and gender in such a way that does away with identity and the “authentic body” altogether—we are left with just characters and nothing else.

Ever since 1981, with their production of Route 1 & 9 (The Last Act), the Wooster Group has been known for their controversial deconstruction of plays, and use of provocative performance techniques such as blackface[1]. Perhaps this rich history is the reason why the group chose to quote Harlem Renaissance intellectual and writer W.E.B. Dubois in the program for The Emperor Jones. As he did in the original 1920 program, Dubois defends O’Neill “against those ‘preordained and self-appointed’ judges of how black people should be represented on stage, those who would ‘destroy art, religion and good common sense in an effort to make everything that is said or shown propaganda for their ideas’” (qtd. in Brustein 28). It is important to note, however, that Dubois was defending O’Neill’s use of Charles Gilpin as the first African American actor to portray a black man on stage. Dubois would later change his views about O’Neill and express that The Emperor Jones “is the kind of play that should never be staged under any circumstances, regardless of theories, because it portrays the worst traits of the bad elements of both races” (qtd. in W.E.B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia 89). The Wooster Group accepts Dubois’ challenge, examining what exactly “the worst traits of the bad elements of both races” are. With Dubois’ words as a pretext and an opening, the Wooster group puts on the stage a deconstruction of O’Neill’s already expressionistic play, destroying all preconceived notions of race, identity and the so-called traits that belong to each.

The most shocking thing about the Wooster Group’s production is Kate Valk’s use of blackface for her performance as Brutus Jones. Unlike conventional nineteenth-century blackface performance, however, the black paint stops at the neck[2]. Her neck is red, and her arms, hands and the rest of her body remain white—something that is revealed as she strips from her robe over the course of the play. This implies a deeper meaning to the Wooster Group’s use of blackface. Rather than just recycling racist theatrical techniques that echo black minstrelsy of the early nineteenth century, Valk’s blackface, stopping at the neck, suggests that the makeup is used as a mask. In an interview with The Philadelphia Theatre Initiative, Valk addresses the issue of blackface and what it feels like when she puts it on: “A mask…it’s transformative to me. It’s what they refer to in the readings I’ve done in Japanese Noh theatre as the ‘double negative,’ where, when you put on a mask, you’re denying, you’re negating yourself, and then…you become the person outside looking at a mask” (7-8). Valk explains her use of blackface as if she were wearing a mask—a concept that O’Neill explored in his playwriting. As Hilton Als points out, O’Neill “uses [masks] not just as props but as shields with which his characters defend the illusions they have piled up in the effort to become themselves” (Als 85). But for Valk and the rest of the Wooster Group, it’s more than just a mask; it’s something that incorporates elements of Japanese theatre.

Certainly upon first seeing the Wooster Group’s performance of this play, one might overlook the use of Kabuki and Japanese theatre altogether, especially when one doesn’t understand its presence in the production. But Valk mentions in her interview with the Philadelphia Theatre Initiative that this use of Eastern and oriental theatrics lays at the heart of the production:

We used a lot of 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. So that 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. So that’s how it began, and it was all there on page for us, really like notes of music. Certainly, it was during O’Neill’s expressionist period. (Sellar 4)

The Noh theatre gave rise to Kabuki theatre in Japanese culture. Valk and director Elizabeth LeCompte, heavily based their rendition of The Emperor Jones on the elements and practices of Eastern theatre. The complications of these influences never end—researching Kabuki leads to researching Noh, which leads to researching Kyogen and Onnagata—a form of male cross-dressing (males playing females) in Kabuki theatre. But understanding these elements and influences on this production of O’Neill’s play is crucial to understanding the deconstruction of race and racial identity.

Performance became an important part of Japanese culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This transformation happened because of Kabuki—a growing Japanese subculture fascinated with performance and theatrics. As scholar C. Andrew Gerstle, points out: “This urban subculture was a world of play” (193). Gerstle goes on to compare to Kabuki theatre as a type of carnival reminiscent of “the medieval ideal of a ‘carnival’ culture, which was opposed to the official culture of the Church or government” (193). Kabuki theatre is applied to this sense of “temporary disruption and inversion of everyday life” (194). Given this element of Kabuki theatre, one can see the relation and relevancy to the Wooster Group’s production of The Emperor Jones, and even O’Neill’s original intention. O’Neill wrote this play in a censored, racist, divided time of American culture. His use of black dialect and employment of the first black actor in a lead role was a temporary disruption and inversion of everyday life.

That inversion is further constructed by Dafoe’s white mask—a stark contrast to Valk’s black mask. Dafoe plays the Cockney trader, Smithers, whom O’Neill describes as sunburned and tanned: “The tropics have tanned his naturally pasty face with its small, sharp features to a sickly yellow, and native rum has painted his nose a startling red” (O’Neill 1031). The Wooster Group goes in a different direction than O’Neill, making Smithers into a pale-faced, geisha-like samurai. Dafoe dons white makeup and a Kabuki-style dress similar to that of Valk’s Kabuki robe. It is this contrast that allows for race to be deconstructed. According to Aoife Monks: “Because Dafoe’s white Japanese mask evoked not a racial whiteness but a theatrical one, blackface also became a theatrical mask, positioning minstrelsy as a theatre form equivalent to Japanese Kabuki” (Monks 555). Furthermore, casting a female in the role of Jones, and placing her next to cross-dressed Smithers brings to light the traditions of black minstrelsy. In some instances of blackface and black minstrelsy, females would play a masculine role in order to regain some “measure of male power and independence” (Callens 46). By combining minstrelsy “with transvestism, [blackface] countered essentialist thinking, by making audiences aware of the detrimental type-casting, within and beyond depictions of race,” as Johan Callens has observed (Callens 46). By placing Valk in the role of the male emperor, the Wooster Group did just that:

Foregrounding the remnants in O’Neill’s text of America’s indigenous, popular performance tradition, and generalizing the principle of inversion at the heart of its racial and gender masquerading, the company demonstrated the unstable, homologous positions of the so-called hierarchical and immutable differences underlying the racial (and gender) ideology. (Callens 46)

The contrast between Jones and Smithers—the blackface in opposition to geisha makeup as well as cross-dressing—deconstructs race and racial identity. Instead of arguing for black minstrelsy, the Wooster Group deconstructs and argues against it.

But a 2009 performance of the same Wooster Group production at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre caused local controversy. One critic wrote: “blackface remains one of the few theatrical weapons with the power to shock an audience, and its presence has caused an understandable rumble of discomfort from some Chicago groups” (Jones 1). African-American activist group, Third World Press, expressed such discomfort. The vice president of the group, Bennett Jones Johnson spoke on the group’s behalf in rejecting the use of blackface: “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” (qtd. in Trachta 1). But this critic neglected to even see the performance. They missed out on the important element of Noh theatre. In juxtaposition with Valk’s blackface, it deconstructs the role of racial identity. As one critic wrote: “This Wooster Group production has been performed for 15 years at theatres 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” (Trachta 1). In order to understand how Noh and Kabuki theatrical elements negate the use of minstrelsy, we must look at how minstrelsy was used in the past and how it is used in this production.

Valk’s use of blackface mimics the practice of early nineteenth-century black minstrelsy—something O’Neill was very aware of when writing and producing his original production of The Emperor Jones. Noh theatre and the use of whiteface, however, turn Valk’s blackface into another mask and theatrical technique. In mimicking nineteenth-century minstrelsy practice, the Wooster Group critiques O’Neill and argues against blackface:

[The Wooster Group’s] use of blackface implicated O’Neill’s constructions of race within the traditions of blackface minstrelsy, showing his vision of blackness—despite his rejection of minstrelsy—to have been formed via the blackface mask, exposing how O’Neill’s vision of race was mediated through the grotesque stereotypes of the blackface stage (Monks 554).

Therefore, the Wooster group’s use of blackface is a deconstruction of the racial stereotypes and identity that subconsciously constructed O’Neill’s character, Brutus Jones. By engaging in the practice of black minstrelsy, Valk examines the role black minstrelsy played in the constructing race and racial identity of blacks in America in the nineteenth-century century and beyond. By using this technique she makes a critique of O’Neill and of American history, raising the question of how identity and race are constructed in the theatre. By laminating blackface with the masks of Kabuki theatre, the Wooster Group turns identity and embodiment into an entirely theatrical thing—there is no real identity on the stage, only the identity that is portrayed through the use of masks and costume.

The Wooster Group doesn’t limit their deconstruction to the use of Japanese theatrical techniques. Their use of technology to superimpose black and white further deconstructs racial identity. We first see the use of technology to rework the way we think about race at the very beginning of the play. As Monks has noted, “representing the character of the old black woman at the beginning of the play, an image of a ghastly white face with black lips is show on the television screen. This image was Valk’s blacked-up face made white through negative imaging on the screen” (Monks 556). Monks brings us back to the use of negative imaging—something Valk talked about in her interview as the “double negative,” the act of “denying” or “negating” yourself. Indeed the use of technology in this instance does just that. By superimposing Valk’s own negative self-image onto another character, her authenticity as a black character is diminished: “this image had a deconstructive effect on the black/white binary on stage, fragmenting the stability of that duality by adding a further technological mask to Valk’s face” (Monks 556). The Emperor Jones falls into a disintegration that is echoed by the deconstruction of race through technological methods.

Another instance of superimposition—perhaps the strongest—is at the end of the play. Dafoe plays both Smithers and the native chief, Lem. Both parts are simultaneously played on a television screen, “using a negative image for Lem (black with a white mouth) and a positive image for Smithers (white faced with a black mouth)” (Monks 556). The use of technology here highlights the performativity of the concepts of black and white. Smithers, the white Cockney trader with a heavy dialect, displays some of the aspects of black racial stereotypes—emphasized by the black mouth. Lem, the chief of the black natives, talks slowly—almost apish, but becomes whiter in the process. It’s the superimposition of the two colors that deconstructs the racial identity of the characters (see fig. 2).

Fig 2. Pictured in The Emperor Jones, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte at the Performing Garage theatre in 1998, is Willem Dafoe (Lem) superimposed with a positive image of Smithers (also Willem Dafoe). Photo by Elizabeth LeCompte.

This use of technology and inversion of everyday life is just one of the ways in which Kabuki theatre influences this rendition of The Emperor Jones. The acting choices of Kate Valk, her style and method of using her voice, mimic both Noh theatre and black minstrelsy techniques. In her interview with The Philadelphia Theatre Initiative, Valk talks about her laugh in the performance, attributing it to the style of Kyogen theatre: “That laugh is from Kyogen performance…it’s shocking for the audience, and I’m feeling that, too, so it’s quite a chord to strike at the beginning there…And I have places to go, but it’s largely in that piece, in the physical embodiment, in the posture, and then committing totally and not backing off of the language of O’Neill” (Sellar 27). Kyogen was a popular performance done during the intermissions of most Noh performances. Kyogen performances were comical, relying on the heavy and apparent laughter of the masked individuals on stage (Pareles).

Valk and Dafoe further mimic the style of the Noh theatre with the use of dance and the plainness of the stage. The stage itself is prepared in Noh fashion. As Brustein has described: “the stage is bare except for a white linoleum floor, decorated with three television screens” (Brustein 28). Noh theatre, throughout history and still performed today, “is highly stylized and takes place on a stage that is essentially bare using a few essential props” (Singh). The props used by the Wooster group are microphones and the three television screens. Singh goes on to describe Noh theatre in a way that brings to mind the Wooster Group’s performance of The Emperor Jones: “The acting combines dialogue and dance movement that is generally slow and stately with burst of high energy at climatic moments. The principal actors are masked and wear elaborate silk brocade costumes that are formal and larger than life” (Singh 1). One can’t help but imagine Valk and Dafoe as traditional Noh theatre performers from the early thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Their costumes, use of dialogue, and stylized dance sequence all mimic the traditions of Noh and Kabuki theatre that are still practiced today. According to Robert Brustein, “while the screens register ghost images, Valk and Dafoe engage each other, both displaying great vocal range and variety, sometimes as characters in O’Neill, sometimes as samurai warriors and dancers in a Kabuki drama” (Brustein 28; see fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Pictured in The Emperor Jones, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte at the Performing Garage theatre in 1998, are (l to r) Kate Valk (Jones) and Willem Dafoe (Smithers). Photo by Paula Court.

Furthermore, the use of costume and masks engages with the technique of Noh theatre in the creation of a “wholly other,” to use Hoaas’ words: “In the early exorcism and rice-planting rites that preceded Noh, when an actor put on a demon mask, he became a demon. When he put on the mask of a god, he became a god. The mask was an embodiment of a ‘wholly other’” (Hoaas 82).

The Wooster Group reconfigures O’Neill’s play in order to deconstruct the very heart of identity. Their use of blackface and Kabuki theatre in makeup and costuming, the use of technology to superimpose black and white and deconstruct racial identity, and the choice of acting style all explore the greater implications of physical embodiment and the way in which identity, and more importantly racial and gender identity, is constructed on stage. By placing a white woman in the role of black man, and in blackface, while dressed in Kabuki robe alongside a white man dressed as a geisha in pale face, superimposed on a television screen with O’Neill’s native chief, the Wooster Group completely deconstructs race as a façade. They use minstrelsy and blackface to critique O’Neill’s own racial constructions—a playwright who pioneered black theatre but was perhaps unknowingly influenced by blackface traditions—and use elements of Japanese theatre to negate racial stereotypes and racial performances into a masked production. The embodiment of Jones on stage is just a representation of a character, and his own dissent backwards into nature and destruction mirrors the Wooster Group’s deconstruction of racial identity and identity in general—moving backwards in time to critique how racial identity on stage was created in the first place. Essentially, there is no real identity on the stage—only the identity created by the masks and costumes used; there is no “authentic black body” as O’Neill once hoped to portray.


[1]See these works of Wooster Group scholars: Savran, David. The Wooster Group, 1975-1985: Breaking the Rules. Ann Arbor, Mich: UMI Research Press, 1986. Print.
Callens, Johan. The Wooster Group and Its Traditions. Bruxelles: P.I.E.-Peter Lang, 2004. Print.

[2]See Lott, Eric, and Greil Marcus. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy And The American Working Class. Oxford, England: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.


Als, Hilton. “The Empress Jones.” New Yorker 82.6 (2006): 85-86. Print.

Brustein, Robert. "The Two O'Neills." New Republic 218.17 (1998): 27-28. Print.

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. Print.

Gerstle, C. Andrew. "The Culture Of Play: Kabuki And The Production Of Texts." Bulletin Of The School Of Oriental And African Studies 66.3 (2003): 358-379. Print.

Hoaas, Solrun. “Noh Masks: The Legacy of Possession.” The Drama Review 26.4 (1982): 82-86. Print.

Jones, Chris. “Blackface and a revelatory ‘Emperor Jones’.” Review of The Emperor Jones, by Elizabeth LeCompte. The Chicago Tribune. 7 January 2009.

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

O’Neill, Eugene. The Emperor Jones. Eugene O’Neill Complete Plays 1913-1920. Ed. Travis Bogard. New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 1988. Print.

Pareles, Jon. “Stage: Nomura Kyogen Theater of Japan.” New York Times. 21 January 1984. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.

Sellar, Tom. Interview with Kate Valk. The Philadelphia Theatre Initiative (2007). Web.24 Oct. 2013. <>.

Singh, Dawn. “‘First Noh & Kyogen Program Witnessed by Americans’ in Boston December 7, 2004.” PRWeb. 25 November 2004. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.

The Emperor Jones. Dir. Elizabeth LeCompte. Perf. Kate Valk and Willem Dafoe. The Wooster Group, 2009. DVD.

Trachta, Ali. “Actress in Blackface Causes Stir at Goodman Theatre.” The Chicagoist. 8 January 2009. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.

W.E.B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Gerald Horne and Mary Young. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001. 89. Print.


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