Although it generally not considered the best play by Eugene O'Neill, The Emperor Jones is perhaps his most controversial and cutting-edge. Why? Because it did not marginalize African and African-American culture in a time when openly racist minstrel shows were still considered acceptable entertainment.
Originally performed in the early 1920s, the play details the rise and fall of Brutus Jones, an African American railway worker who becomes a thief, a killer, an escaped convict, and after journeying to the West Indies, the self-proclaimed ruler of an island. Although Jones' character is villainous and desperate, his corrupt value system has been derived by observing upper-class white Americans. As the island people rebel against Jones, he becomes a hunted man -- and undergoes a transformation towards savageness.
Drama critic Ruby Cohn writes:
The Emperor Jones is at once a gripping drama about an oppressed American black, a modern tragedy about a hero with a flaw, an expressionist quest play probing to the racial roots of the protagonist; above all, it is more highly theatrical than its European analogues, gradually quickening the tom-tom from normal pulse-rhythm, stripping away colorful costume to the naked man beneath, subordinating dialogue to innovative lighting in order to illuminate an individual and his racial heritage.
As much as he was a playwright, O'Neill was a social critic against racism. At the same time, while the play demonizes colonialism, the main character exhibits many immoral qualities. African American playwrights such as Langston Hughes, and later on Lorraine Hansberry, would create plays that celebrated the courage and compassion of black Americans -- something not seen in O'Neill's work, which focuses on the turbulent lives of derelicts, both black and white. Ultimately, modern audiences are left to wonder whether or not The Emperor Jones did more harm than good.