The Emperor Jones was first staged on November 1, 1920, by the Provincetown Players at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City. Charles Sidney Gilpin, a respected leading man from the all-black Lafayette Players of Harlem, was the first actor to play the role of Brutus Jones on stage. They did have some conflict over Gilpin's tendency to change O'Neill's use of the word "nigger" to Negro and colored in the course of the play. This production was O'Neill's first real smash hit. The Players' small theater was too small to cope with audience demand for tickets, and the play was transferred to another theater. It ran for 204 performances and was hugely popular, touring in the States with this cast for the next two years.
Brutus Jones (Charles S. Gilpen, left) at a slave auction (Scene 5)
Under the spell of hallucination, Jones fires at the wraiths of an auctioneer and a Southern planter (Scene 5)
Jones (right) wastes one of his precious bullets on the apparition of a witch doctor (Scene 7)
Although Gilpin continued to perform the role of Brutus Jones in the US tour that followed the Broadway closing of the play, he eventually had a falling out with O'Neill. Gilpin wanted O'Neill to remove the word "nigger," which occurred frequently in the play, but the playwright felt its use was consistent with his dramatic intentions and the use of language was, in fact, based on a friend, an African-American tavern-keeper on the New London waterfront that was O'Neill's favorite drinking spot in his home town. When they could not come to a reconciliation, O'Neill replaced Gilpin with the young and then unknown Paul Robeson, who previously had only performed on the concert stage. Robeson starred in the title role in the 1925 New York revival (28 performances) and later in the London production.
Robeson starred in the summer production in 1941 at the Ivoryton Playhouse, Ivoryton, Ct.
The show was again revived in 1926 at the Mayfair Theatre in Manhattan, with Gilpin again starring as Jones and also directing the show. The production, which ran for 61 performances, is noted for the acting debut of a young Moss Hart as Smithers.
Federal Theatre Project
The Federal Theatre Project of the Works Progress Administration launched several productions of the play in cities across the United States, including a production with marionettes in Los Angeles in 1938.
In 1980 Richard Negri directed a production at the Royal Exchange, Manchester with Pete Postlethwaite and Albie Woodington.
The Wooster Group mounted a production of the play in 2007 for the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, which played to sold-out audiences. As part of its postdramatic aesthetics, this staging was notable for having an actor play the part of Jones who was female, white, and performed in blackface (Kate Valk). Blackface had been a suggestion for the original production, which O'Neill vetoed.
In 2005 Thea Sharrock directed the play, with Paterson Joseph in the title role, for the Bush Theatre in London. The audience looked down into a sand-filled pit. The claustrophic effect was admired by Michael Billington among others. The production transferred to the Olivier auditorium at The National Theatre, London, in 2007.
New York's Irish Repertory Theatre staged a 2009 revival, which received positive reviews. John Douglas Thompson portrayed Jones.