Kathryn Hunter is one of my favorite living actors, but she is white and British and spends the entirety of The Emperor playing eleven different Ethiopians. This happens without any apparent self-reflection and is profoundly disheartening. Indeed, one gets the sinking feeling that no one involved even considered the possibility that it might be a problem; in his press release, artistic director Jeffrey Hunter refers to it as a “parable of power” but says nothing about the transracial casting. It seems relevant that both writer (Colin Teevan) and director (Walter Meierjohann) are white, and the tone deafness here rings like the headache-inducing hammering of an analog alarm clock. In other words, this is what happens when there aren’t enough people of color in the room.
The Emperor is based on the work of Ryszard Kapuściński, a Polish journalist who managed to interview the surviving members of Haile Selassie’s court after his removal from the throne. Punctuated by Temesgan Zeleke’s mournful krar strumming—to my knowledge he is the sole Ethiopian on the creative team—Hunter hops around the stage, reciting short monologues and playing various members of Selassie’s domestic staff, from his valet to the keeper of his private zoo. Teevan’s adaptation has its share of amusing anecdotes (the emperor apparently bowed and thanked his arresting officers), but the work as a whole fails to cohere. In many ways, these men knew more about Selassie than Selassie himself, attuned as they were to his most intimate needs, but I didn’t exit the theater with a sense that I knew much more about the man than I did going in.
Ultimately, however, the most glaring failure is that of Hunter’s casting. The fact that this happened in Brooklyn, at a theater that claims to be guided by the core value of “a commitment to diversity,” makes the proceedings all the more depressing. Shame on everyone involved who watched and said nothing.
The Emperor runs through September 30th at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. 262 Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY. 1 hour 10 minutes. No intermission.