5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: John Douglas Thompson

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Photos by Carol Rosegg
Photos by Carol Rosegg

Even by the considerable standards of the experimental, boundary-pushing plays of Eugene O’Neill in the 1920s, The Emperor Jones remains one of the playwright’s most audacious plays. The story of Brutus Jones, an African-American man who flees the U.S. following a prison break for a Caribbean island, where he installs himself as a monarch but, in the end, cannot escape fate, is a psychologically probing achievement in American drama. Often associated with the actor Paul Robeson, it made a star of the first actor to play Jones, Charles Gilpin, a tragic figure of the American stage whose own story could easily become a drama of its own.

Opening Oct. 18 and running through Nov. 29, a much-anticipated revival of The Emperor Jones kicks off the 2009-10 season of Off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre, under Ciaran O’Reilly’s direction and with John Douglas Thompson in the title role. Last season, Thompson deservedly won both an Obie and a Lortel award for his work in the title role of Theatre for a New Audience’s deeply illuminating production of Othello. Thompson’s credits on Broadway include the Kevin Kline-Jennifer Garner Cyrano de Bergerac and the Denzel Washington Julius Caesar. He is also an Off-Broadway veteran, with major roles in Red Bull Theatre’s Women Beware Women, New York Theatre Workshop’s Hedda Gabler, Theatre for a New Audience’s Oroonoko and Classical Theater of Harlem’s King Lear.

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For tickets to The Emperor Jones, call 212-727-2737 or visit www.irishrep.org.

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And now, 5 questions John Douglas Thompson has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“How did you memorize all those lines?” At first glance, this would not appear to be perceptive. But if you can reflect back on the whole process of rehearsing and putting up a show, the question takes on a whole new meaning — and gets to the root of acting itself. So I find that question to be very perceptive because the answer is of an all-encompassing nature and because, for me, line memorization is a combination of many subtle elements.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about you work?
Well, I really gave this a lot of thought and can’t recall any idiotic or weird questions from anyone about my work. I always have that mantra of “there is no such thing as a stupid question” from my training, so all questions are fair game, a quest for some level of understanding, and the less I judge the question, hopefully the more beneficial will be the answer for myself and the questioner.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone asked you about you work?
See answer for question #2

4EJ338Rosegg4) One feature of The Emperor Jones is flashbacks — a novel conceit in 1920, but a common one today. Do you think actors make different choices to play flashbacks on stage as opposed to film? And does the fact that The Emperor Jones is written in an “expressionistic” vein make any difference in playing those flashbacks?
The flashbacks in Emperor Jones were indeed innovative for the American theatre in 1920. However, they still allow for an array of vivid, bold and creative theatricality in 21st century theater. Flashbacks on stage may be more in real time than in film — it’s happening live in front of you, thus providing a different impact. The fact that Emperor Jones is an expressionistic play allows for some wonderful collaboration between the actor and technical theater elements in creating states of mind. I think expressionism fills in the gap between theater and film. It’s an old idea combining text and visuals in increasingly dynamic ways. A novel idea by O’Neill but only as common as the reaches of one’s imagination.

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5) Are you a big researcher? Are there times when you opt to do no research on a role? I am thinking of Charles Gilpin, who created the role of Brutus Jones and was widely acclaimed prior to a falling out with O’Neill. Is it a distraction to think, “Gee, I’m playing a role originated by so-and-so?”
I used to do a small amount of research for a role, now I do a great deal: on the writer, the text, the role, historical and political context, etc. For me, research provides a context and foundation from which to start and grow throughout the process, and it becomes knowledge that remains long after the final performance. Through my research on Emperor Jones I came into contact with the great Charles Gilpin, the acclaimed actor who created the role of Brutus Jones and was highly praised by O’Neill even after their fallout. I was happy to hear about Gilpin because I had always associated the role of Brutus Jones with the great Paul Robeson, who also had great success with Emperor Jones. I feel honored to have the opportunity to make a contribution to a part that has such great lineage and heritage.

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Bonus question:

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6) What would happen if a white playwright dared write a play like The Emperor Jones today?
First off, I’d like to broaden the debate about the nature and meaning of this play. I do not share an alarmist or negative view of the play as some people do. I think O’Neill wrote a great play with a wonderful role at its center. To better understand this, we must go back to some of the influences that helped O’Neill create this play: expressionism, the teachings of Carl Jung (the unconscious mind and the collective unconscious), Haitian politics, colonialism and capitalism. These influences do not appear to me to create a negative view or an indictment of a character like Brutus Jones, but a psychological study of a man who has been disenfranchised and seeks re-enfranchisement by any means necessary. When I look at the play from this vantage point, the journey of Brutus Jones becomes very Jungian as the forest in the play becomes a metaphor for the psyche and its layers of the unconscious. In this sense, Brutus Jones is a representation of the Everyman who seeks absolute power for his own personal gain. We must also remember there have been political despots like Brutus Jones throughout our world history, of every nationality and continent. With all that being said, if a white playwright today wrote a play as smart, incisive, daring, theatrical and revolutionary as Emperor Jones, I’d love to be in it.

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