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Word has it that famous playwright Eugene O’Neill had a great first year when he got to Broadway in 1920 with his plays. One of the reasons was his second Broadway production – “The Emperor Jones.”

The play tells the tale of Brutus Jones, an African American who kills a man and is imprisoned but then escapes, and later sets himself up as emperor on a small Caribbean island. How he got there, what happened in his colorful and stressful life, and the people who put him where he was (and who want to unseat him), are the stuff of the drama, all told via flashback.

Scene from "The Emperor Jones". Photo courtesy of Summit Artspace

Scene from “The Emperor Jones.” Photo courtesy of Summit Artspace

Summit Artspace, a Knight Arts grantee, is the home of the Akron Area Arts Alliance. This year it is expanding on its role as art outlet and source by venturing into theater this coming weekend with opening performances of O’Neill’s well-known and controversy-generating play.

Summit Artspace will build its theater presence – in interim executive director Sandy Kreisman’s words – as an addition to “venues for local Akron theater.” To extend the role of the community in the space, the play is being done in cooperation with The University of Akron and is being presented as part of Black History Month.

The cast is comprised of “a competent mix of University of Akron alumni and existing students who wanted to present challenging theatre to the public,” according to Kreisman. That certainly can describe “The Emperor Jones,” since its themes of racism and power echo the sort of stir that Quentin Tarantino’s current film “Django Unchained” is getting for its liberal use of offensive language and stereotypes.

Scene from "The Emperor Jones." Photo courtesy of Summit Artspace

Scene from “The Emperor Jones.” Photo courtesy of Summit Artspace

It really is kind of exciting since the play doesn’t get that much theater time these days. For most people, if you ever want to see it as live theater, this would be the time.

The play is directed by Lois Elswick, a graduate student at The University of Akron and features actors Treviel Cody as the Emperor as well as Keith Scott as white trader Smithers (who initiates discussion of the political and racial unrest on the small island).  Technical aspects of the production go to Jacob Gatti (lighting design) and Richard Reed (sound technician).

Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones” will be performed Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through February 15 at Summit Artspace, 140 E. Market St., Akron; 330-376-8480; www.akronareaarts.org. Tickets are $10 ($7 for students).

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