Members say: Great acting, Great staging, Intense, Absorbing, Thought-provoking

About the show

Irish Repertory Theatre revives Eugene O’Neill’s groundbreaking play about the rise and fall of Brutus Jones, a despot who ascends the throne using lies, intimidation, and the politics of fear.

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After breaking out of prison in the U.S., Jones sets himself up as monarch of a Caribbean island. When the Natives rebel after years of exploitation, Jones' journey into darkness becomes a terrifying psychological portrayal of power, fear, and madness. With his demons in heavy pursuit, the Emperor is forced to confront not only the mortal sins of his past but also the depravities against his ancestors—all in search of forgiveness and salvation. Irish Rep last mounted this classic but controversial play in 2009. This production features the same director and designers but a new cast.

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See: Critics' Reviews | Members' Reviews

The New York Times

"A gorgeous, astonishing production...Both ferocious and blindsidingly affecting with Abili in the title role...'The Emperor Jones' is encrusted by its own time, with dialect that reads like racial caricature and sometimes cringe-worthy stage directions...O’Reilly’s lucid fever dream of a production shrugs off that grime, putting at its center a performance of such assured intelligence that there’s no possibility of condescension. Boundary-pushing in its day, the play still has plenty to say." Full Review

New Yorker

“Abili’s bravura performance doesn’t come off as ‘bravura’ and has no cheap flourishes...O’Neill was considerably influenced by the argument made by the legendary stage designer Gordon Craig, in his book ‘The Theatre Advancing,’ that, in doing away with masks, pantomime, and dance, the theatre had lost its magic. O’Reilly throws all of that back in. The result is mostly cumbersome and ‘artisanal,’ but, in the end, this unconvincing backdrop serves to show us Abili’s performance in relief." Full Review


“A nightmarish and hauntingly beautiful production...A breathtaking experience for the senses...Barry McNabb's masterful choreography is mesmerizing...But it's Abili's performance that gives this production its raw power...Abili's performance and O'Reilly's production make clear that Brutus Jones is one of the great tragic figures of the theater...The racial and political anxieties that 'The Emperor Jones' explores are ripe for renewed discussion in our time.” Full Review

Lighting & Sound America

"Worth seeing for its assured style alone...Obi Abili delivers a performance that isn't easily shaken off...Despite the outsized emotions he must register, there's a precision to everything Abili does, a variety of shadings that reveal each scene to be another step in Jones' descent into madness and death...O'Neill's script is a weaponized comment on human cruelty, designed to make audiences feel uncomfortable, and, produced with passion and creativity as it is here, it continues to do so." Full Review

Broadway Blog

"Abili fills the stage with ample physical and vocal force although his words, written in heavy 'Negro' dialect, are sometimes muffled. At one point he whips his throne platform with one muscular blow after another, such that you shudder at the thought of what the effect would be on a human back...I missed John Douglas Thompson's performance so I can't compare him to Abili but, for now, Abili has set the high standard I'll remember the next time someone tackles 'The Emperor Jones.'" Full Review

Front Row Center

"It’s a play that every O’Neill fan should see, and one could do worse than choosing The Irish Rep’s current production that offers plenty of compelling visuals, and a mostly powerful performance by its lead...Jones is a challenging role for any actor and Abili does bring the heat and the intensity if not an extreme emotional range...If he is lacking chemistry at the opening, he has found the proper equation by his final scene." Full Review

Talkin' Broadway

"Remains shockingly powerful and relevant in its methods of addressing its ancient ideas. All of this is on full view, too, in O'Reilly's arresting production...A journey that first feels like a leisurely stroll soon transforms into a heart-pounding marathon...The cast is no less than expert. But in embracing both Jones's humanity and total lack of it, Abili is truly superb...This version of 'The Emperor Jones' knows exactly what it is and what it needs to be. And we are all the richer for it." Full Review

Times Square Chronicles

“Abili is a force to be reckoned with, I just wish I had understood him through the heavy dialect. His presence and acting are masterful and powerful and extremely psychopathic. As he waved the gun around, I was actually cringing that it might go off…The direction by Ciarán O'Reilly is chilling, and choreographer Barry McNabb shines as his forest and witch doctor (Sinclair Mitchell) come springing to life.” Full Review


"Still breathtakingly original...It's hard to top Thompson's riveting performance...Obi Abili hasn't mastered the brutish Jones's dialect with quite the same crystal clear line delivery. However, his more physically focused interpretation is quite extraordinary and works well with this expressionistic presentation...The amazing puppets and the actors who inhabit them, as well as the costumes, atmospheric music and lighting are what makes this 'Emperor Jones' so special." Full Review

Theatre Reviews Limited

"Under O’Reilly’s inventive direction, Abili delivers an engaging adrenaline-driven performance...'Emperor Jones,' despite its rich themes and enduring questions, is not without problems. In his efforts to address the evils of racism, O’Neill resorts to language that is racist and a purely psychological reading of the play is problematic. Seen through the political critical lens, however, the play provides a treasure trove of redemptive conversation concerning the dangers of despotism." Full Review

Woman Around Town

“Prepare to be immersed in the vengeful actions of a spirit world made lucid by a sensational production of ‘The Emperor Jones’…The symbiotic creatives at Irish Rep, under the adroit helm of Director Ciaran O’Reilly, offer a visually and audibly inventive, palpably menacing, magical scenario. O’Reilly, proven skillful with both naturalism and musicals is also apparently superb with the inconceivable. Concept and coordination are as outstanding as his lead’s performance.” Full Review


"With Charlie Corcoran's flexible set turning the tiny stage of the Irish Rep into a looming tropical forest, and the smartly realized costumes of Antonia Ford-Roberts and Whitney Locher, and Bob Flanagan's masks and puppets transforming a cast of seven into a multitude of trees, ghostly presences and spirits, the five hundred or so square feet of this stage on West 22nd Street became a vividly haunted island in the West Indies, giving life to O'Neill's 1920 drama." Full Review

This Week in New York Blog

"Controversy has surrounded the play from the very beginning because of its use of stereotypes, speech, and rampant use of the N-word...Regardless of where you find yourself on the racist controversy, it’s hard to deny the sheer power of the play, which is both uncomfortable to watch and utterly captivating in this intense and intimate production. Abili fully embodies the role...'The Emperor Jones' can still shock, providing no easy outs, particularly in this poignant version." Full Review


"[M]ostly 'The Emperor Jones' proves impenetrable, a wonderful test of stamina for the lead actor and perhaps for the audience as well." Full Review

Theater Pizzazz

"What drives this highly expressionistic production is the charismatic Obi Abili as Emperor Jones, giving one of the most exciting performances on the New York stage this season...Abili has a commanding stage presence that keeps you utterly riveted throughout. He fills the tiny Irish Repertory Theatre with his explosive power...Director O’Reilly and his design team have dramatized Emperor Jones’ journey in powerful theatrical terms." Full Review

Epoch Times

"Too much praise cannot be heaped upon Abili, who embodies Emperor Jones in body and mind, his taut actor’s intelligence merging with his role. Furthermore, in addition to portraying the viciousness of the character, he makes us feel compassion for this tortured man. Kudos to O’Reilly, whose directing brought about a stunning rendition of this important theater work." Full Review

Stage Buddy

“With Brutus the sole character for much of the show, success relies on Obi Abili’s excellent performance as the tormented ruler. Directed by Ciaran O’Reilly, Abili captivates with the powerful way he captures Brutus’s descent. Some of the surrounding material becomes somewhat repetitive...But Abili maintains the strength of the story line through his powerful portrayal of a man falling from power, life, and himself." Full Review

Exeunt Magazine

"An expressionistic masterpiece. Under the boldly inventive eye of director O’Reilly, O’Neill’s controversial 1920 play thumps and swirls itself deeper and deeper and with increasing wonder into the fissured psyche of its title character...Even with stellar acting and directing, the elements that lift this production to its greatest heights come from its technical team...The expedition pays off handsomely, as this production captures all that makes O’Neill’s play powerful and haunting." Full Review

Berkshire Fine Arts

“A powerful early play by Eugene O’Neill, made even more powerful by its flawless production at the Irish Repertory Theatre…All the wit, energy and anger the character claims for himself is dramatized by Abili in slithering, jolting gestures and subtle and roaring twists of language…Director Ciaran O'Reilly treats the real and the unreal with the same even hand, which makes the downward spiral of the Emperor all the more powerful.” Full Review

Plays to See

“An unforgettable theatrical experience that will stir you and leave you shaken. Abili gives an impressively physicalized, fearless performance…He handles O’Neill’s potentially cartoonish African-American dialect with a more updated street bravado. It works...O’Reilly employs an experiment, having the local people all in masks. The effect is both distancing and chilling. Maybe not having to show their faces also makes it a little easier for actors to embrace this troubling, important work.” Full Review

New York Irish Arts

"The takeaway from the show is usually the tour de force of the eponymous role. But while Abili brings gravitas and intensity to his role, his performance is not the main event. The play itself is, and that’s how it should be...Director Ciarán O’Reilly, with the help of choreographer Barry McNabb, has put together a dark, precise and unforgettable production...Jones never makes it out of the forest—and neither does the audience. The production is precise, terrifying and truly haunting." Full Review


“Between the terrific performance by Obi Abili as Jones, and the splendid vision of director Ciaran O’Reilly, this is one of those times when a not-so-good play gets an excellent production, which makes it a don’t miss…Abili gives an astonishing performance as Brutus Jones. His rage, his arrogance, his fear, his regret, remorse, and disintegration are all perfectly embodied. It’s a knockout performance…The ensemble are all terrific.” Full Review

Village Voice

"The Irish Rep production avoids critiquing O'Neill's text but still gives it an insightful, disturbing reading. As Jones, Abili stalks and rasps about the stage with mesmerizing focus and intensity...O'Reilly's production surrounds him with a whirlwind of scenic effects, all of which make the show feel more like a haunted house than an expressionist parable. But Abili shines through all this distracting cheesiness, creating a troubling portrait of Jones that sticks in the mind — and the gut." Full Review

NY Theatre Guide

"Arrogance leads to the Emperor Jones' downfall. The last night of his reign unfolds in the Irish Repertory Theatre's riveting production, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, with Obi Alibi’s hypnotic performance of the title role...It’s painful to watch, but hard not to. What is surprising about a 1920 play that won its author his second Pulitzer Prize is that it chronicles one man‘s descent into madness. O’Neill does not regard humanity or tyranny in black and white." Full Review

This Week in New York Blog

“It’s hard to deny the sheer power of the play, which is both uncomfortable to watch and utterly captivating in this intense and intimate production…Abili fully embodies the role, his fear palpable…Murray makes Smithers a fine foil for Jones…Everyone involved deserves kudos…It might have been written nearly a century ago, but 'The 'Emperor Jones' can still shock, providing no easy outs, particularly in this poignant version that bookends the Obama years.” Full Review

See: Critics' Reviews | Members' Reviews

Intense, Confusing, Entertaining

See it if you like intensity and drama from a very good leading actor.

Don't see it if it was hard to get into this play on such a small stage.

Great acting, Intense, Quirky, Confusing

See it if you've never seen this O'Neill classic.

Don't see it if you're not interested in a play about a self-appointed Caribbean emperor sinking into insanity.

Ambitious, Quirky, Slow

See it if you like to see puppets

Don't see it if you dislike surreal theater

Absorbing, Inventive, Thought-provoking, Relevant, Resonant

See it if you enjoy see the full scope of a playwright's work and/or like the use puppetry. Themes in this century old play are still fresh today.

Don't see it if expressionistic plays leave you cold. This is an important O'Neill play that's well done but not his best.

Absorbing, Edgy, Intense

See it if you are into intense plays, well acted, but with little levity. Not O'Neill's best, but definitely interesting. Very physical production.

Don't see it if You are looking for something more lighthearted and plot driven.

Intense, Riveting

See it if you like high drama. Great acting, choreography and sound. My only gripe is it was a bit hard to understand actors because of accents.

Don't see it if you want a light and airy evening.

Absorbing, Great acting, Intense, Thought-provoking, Great staging

See it if You like an absorbing play that uses puppetry and dance to explore the subconscious of a black dictator. Obi Abili is remarkable.

Don't see it if You don't like dark plays that are dated in their language and racism.

Confusing, Great staging, Good puppetry

See it if You want to see a production of show. Good puppetry and choreography. You enjoy an almost one man show.

Don't see it if You don't know show well. Dialogue is not clear and it's confusing.

Interesting but pointless

See it if you want to see a BIG performance by the lead actor

Don't see it if You are expecting a play

Ambitious, Great acting, Intelligent, Great writing, Great staging

See it if Brilliant production of expressionist play about power,corruption,madness of a brutal black dictator in West Indies island great Obi Abilli

Don't see it if You don't like psychological plays drawing out perception and subconscious through puppetry and dance

Absorbing, Clever, Intense, Riveting, Great staging

See it if a magnificently staged classic appeals to you. Puppets, lighting & music create a magical jungle world in which truth becomes justice.

Don't see it if you are looking for complex characters or plot.

Great acting, Intense, Riveting, Slow, Dated

See it if you like Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", Expressionist drama, and want to see Man stripped of Civilization literally and metaphorically.

Don't see it if Explorations of race, puppets, or jungle anguish won't hold your interest. Also, this is a 70 minute one act.

Also Not my favorite O'Neill, but an interestingly-staged, powerfully acted... Read more Read less

Creative, Great acting, Intense, Great staging, Great puppetry

See it if Intensely clever and creative theater with brilliant use of puppetry, dance and costuming, superbly acted by Obi Abili.

Don't see it if Do not enjoy heavy drama.

Clever, Thought-provoking, Disappointing, Entertaining, Great staging

See it if You did not see Thompson in the part at the Irish Rep several years ago. It is well staged but there is something missing in the portrayal

Don't see it if You are looking for a true evolution in the character and a sense of tragedy. This "Emperor" has no majesty and therefore his fall is less

Absorbing, Great acting, Intense, Riveting

See it if You like drama and intensity

Don't see it if If you don't like intense drama

Great acting, Intense, Thought-provoking, Riveting, Great staging

See it if you want to see a brilliant, creative production of a rarely performed Eugene O'Neill play, featuring dazzling Obi Abili in the title role.

Don't see it if you are unable to listen to politically incorrect language and/or you only like lightweight fare.

Also We are incredibly blessed to have two extraordinary productions of two... Read more Read less

Great acting, Relevant, Great writing, Great staging

See it if you love O'Neill. This play remains so relevant "Ain't I the emperor - the laws don't go for him". The lead Obi Abili was brilliant.

Don't see it if racial dialect caricature makes you cringe.

Absorbing, Great acting, Intense, Dated, Great staging

See it if Raw, early O'Neill still has the power to shock & this production proves it Great staging & Abili's exceptional work as Brutus packs a punch

Don't see it if Dated colonial practices & harsh racial language & stereotypes jolt & often mar effective enjoyment (?) but expressionistic treatment works

Edgy, Great acting, Thought-provoking, Masterful, Great staging

See it if you like O'Neill. Obi Abili is amazing as a tyrant who falls from grace through a roller coaster of emotions, including anger and pride.

Don't see it if you need someone to explain the action to you if a play is not clearly laid out beginning to end; are bothered by racist terms

Also It is best to just go to see this version of Emperor Jones, and enjoy ... Read more Read less

Absorbing, Great acting, Intense, Riveting, Great staging

See it if an expressionist play about an emperor who flees through a terrifying jungle populated by equally terrifying puppets

Don't see it if you don't like puppets, dark dramas or would be offended by black speech that we would now consider racist

Also Mr. Obili's performance was amazing. The first scenes were a little sl... Read more Read less

Ambitious, Great acting, Intense, Dated, Great staging

See it if Mr. Abili is very good; the staging is, alone, worth the trip as are the puppets. This is a chance to see a major-dated- work.

Don't see it if I could not understand some of the dialogue. This is a brutal, tough story and it felt repetitious to me.

Absorbing, Exquisite, Great acting, Great staging, Fast paced

See it if you never have before. It's gorgeous, thoughtful, & brilliantly acted - faithful to the original work but with an expanded world view.

Don't see it if you can't stand O'Neill or expressionist theatre.

Absorbing, Intense, Imaginative, Primal, Expressive

See it if Amazing use of staging and puppetry, Expressive

Don't see it if no reason

Thought-provoking, Powerful acting, Innovative puppetry, Intelligent, but not emitionally engaging

See it if worth seeing for the puppets and ensemble. Despite Albili's strong performance, show fell flat for me. Maybe I saw it on an off night.

Don't see it if are offended by racial epithets, or want light entertainment. It's harsh and hard hitting...and after a while, becomes too one note.

Ambitious, Intense, Thought-provoking, Resonant, Great staging

See it if to see a surreal, mystical creation, not quite a play- about race and blackness, written by a white man a century ago. Fascinating.

Don't see it if you seek a structured evening of dialogue; there is very little. the play is mostly hallucination, and nearly a one-man show.

Cast & Creatives (18)