The Emperor’s Last Performance, a new drama by Melvin Ishmael Johnson, is a historically significant work which deserves high praise. If this is common fare for the Robey Theatre Company’s Playwrights Lab and instructor Aaron Henne, then all aspiring playwrights should beat a path to their doors and clamor for their tutelage.
The technical aspects of the show, despite the verbal disclaimer beforehand because we were attending the Preview, were spot on and charming. Music and Sound Design by Eric Butler were authentic to the 1920’s setting and gave the déjà vu feeling of having lived in America during that significantly primitive era of social divide.
All actors were cleverly placed in side-chairs on the stage during the entire play so they become part of the audience, only rising to perform their portions of the play. This device enhances the seriousness of the subject, although there are many light moments in this exploration of the life and times of the first black actor to have a lead on Broadway in the play within the play: Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones.
The real life character’s name of that break-through actor was Charles Gilpin. He is capably portrayed by Dwain A. Perry, who hid any preview show nervousness by scowling a few too many times, but other than the scowl, Perry’s performance was strong and his determined and fierce sideways expressions charmingly held our attention.
Director Ben Guillory has honed the cast and crew to an opening ready level, which needs only a few more audiences to polish the occasionally bumpy transitions.
The supporting cast is excellent, with Jonathan Palmer as America’s foremost important playwright Eugene O’Neill. Palmer is smooth, natural and totally believable as the prolific writer who is known for delving into the dysfunctional subconscious motivations of individuals, family and society.
Robert Clements plays as co-lead and best friend/manager to the Emperor who refuses to be managed by anyone. Clements is the glue that holds the plot together; a genial good host. He is always supportive and truthful to his friend, while trying to hold Gilpin back from the brink of ruining his very life and budding career.
Kellie Roberts is Gilpin’s girlfriend, the only female in the cast, which needs no other because her ebullient personality, onstage and off, adds enough feminine energy to balance all the males in the cast.
Just as refreshing is Ted Wynn playing the vaudeville star Bert Williams whose sarcastic rendition of the black in blackface act is placed in the exact right spot in the play which has no intermission. His ability to build the piece and add nuance to the act serves to reset the audience’s own energy, and understanding of what this story is all about.
Exciting newcomer Jah Shams plays the young and talented Paul Robeson. He slides into the part with eagerness and power and is very focused on the tension and intention the part demands.
The cast is well-rounded ethnically and talent-wise by Michael Kass, who takes on multiple characters and dialects with ease and authenticity; Ibrahim Saba playing the kindly encouraging director of the play within play; and Peter Trencher as the intrepid reporter.
Everyone and especially every young person will be enlightened by this play; which is a must-book for educational organizations from junior high upwards.