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Theater review: 'The Emperor’s Last Performance' at Los Angeles Theatre Centre [Updated]

April 1, 2010 |  7:30 pm
400.TELP_0335 press copy An unjustly forgotten chapter in American theatrical and racial history is the raison d'être of "The Emperor's Last Performance," which ends its limited Los Angeles Theatre Center run on Sunday. This respectable Robey Theatre Company staging of Melvin Ishmael Johnson's drama about the first star of Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones" merges the techniques of stage fantasia and social document.

Once the cast files in to sit on either side of designer Victoria Bellocq's fragmented backstage set, manager Nacirema Naibun (Robert Clements) welcomes us. Charles Gilpin (Dwain A. Perry), an international sensation in O'Neill's drama in 1920, is appearing one last time as the Emperor Jones. [Updated: Victoria Bellocq's last name was mispelled as Bello in an earlier version of this post.]

With a dressing room shift, we follow Gilpin's 11-year passage from stardom to alcoholic obscurity –  replaced by the emerging Paul Robeson (Jah Shams) after clashing with O'Neill (Jonathan Palmer) over his script's use of the N-word.  Throughout, the action revisits a key scene from "Jones," which accrues wider relevance by the eulogizing ending.

Director Ben Guillory has some bright ideas:  a pool hall depicted solely by lighting designer Phil Kong and sound designer Eric Butler; an overhead solo of "Nobody" from Bert Williams (Ted Wynn); various onlooker reactions.

The actors, smartly attired in costumer Naila A. Sanders' period wear, are capable, with Perry's commitment self-evident, his colleagues all on the same page. Michael Kass, Kellie Roberts, Ibrahim Saba and Peter Trencher complete their competent ranks.

Johnson's writing is technically proficient, albeit a shade over-compressed and academically explicated. The work's brevity almost impedes the larger statement of Gilpin's story. Even so, "The Emperor's Last Performance" is hardly inconsiderable, and not just for its historical significance.

– David C. Nichols

"The Emperor’s Last Performance," Los Angeles Theatre Centre, Theatre 4, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 pm. Saturday, 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $30. (213) 489-0994, Ext. 107, or Running time:  1 hour, 15 minutes.

Photo: Jonathan Palmer, left, and Dwain A. Perry. Credit: Ed Krieger.