The Emperor Jones Analysis

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Jose Limón and his 1950s story-ballets introduce topics of nationality, race, gender, and sexuality to re-shape the model of race and sexuality in the “American” identity. Limón introduces the issue of race throughout his performance, the audience, and theatre space in his representation his The Emperor Jones (1956), based on this play and of the same name, commissioned by the Empire State Music Festival, scored by Heitor Villa-Lobos and premiered on June 11, 1956 in Ellenville, New York. This analysis of The Emperor Jones is taken from the March 1957 performance on the DVD, José Limón: Three Modern Dance Classics. This film features the original all-male cast with Limón as Brutus Jones; Lucas Hoving as Smithers, whom Limón credits as “The White Man;” and six company members performing the two roles of “The Emperor’s Subjects” and “The Little Formless Fears.” Through Limon’s construction of a white privilege and queer staging of male bodies, he reveals complex relationships between race and sexuality. I argue that Limón’s performance in The Emperor Jones, based on the play by Eugene O’Neill, serves the functions of expanding and modifying how race, gender, sexuality are considered a part of American history and character. To understand Limón’s The Emperor Jones, one must first understand the inspiration behind it. In Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, Brutus Jones, an African-American Pullman porter escapes from a chain gang to a West Indies isle. He tricks the local “natives” into believing that only a “silver bullet” can kill him, and with this authority he quickly makes himself emperor. In the opening of the play, Jones discovered, through Smithers, a local white trader, that the “natives” are planning a rebellion. Jones p... ... middle of paper ... ... Unlike Jones, the environment does not contextualize Smithers’ character and Smithers himself doesn’t derive his motivation from it; rather he uses his environment to fit his needs. Because Smithers is not limited to a specific region, he has the ability to travel freely, unregulated by gravity or implied social boundaries. Smithers’ movements mock the hefty struggle between Jones and the dark jungle of history. Through Limón’s commanding integration of O’Neill’s story into his choreography in The Emperor Jones, Limón created a context that supported an analysis of racism. By using this particular context to emphasize his non-white form, Limón also intervened in the continuation of racial stereotypes. Limón’s The Emperor Jones was a positive presentation by a prominent modern dance choreographer to represent African-Americans and dissipate racial stereotypes.

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