The Wooster Group: Kate Valk in Emperor Jones
by Charlotte Deaver
This is the third time I've seen this performance in ten years, and each is as amazing as the last. I can actually say that The Wooster Group's Emperor Jones is my favorite theatrical experience ever.
To be even more specific, I anticipate, with chills, a dance that occurs twice during the play. Kate Valk, tarred in blackface, dressed in folds of Kabuki-like garments and Lower East Side biker boots, and Smithers (played in the past by Willem DeFoe, currently by others) lock eyes, ready their feet, and sweep side by side indescribably for mere seconds, riveting themselves, or so it seems, as much as the audience in their rhythmic, angular choreography.
The dance is over almost as quickly as it begins, and seems to serve no other purpose than to divert us as slight shifts in the set are performed by a stagehand. If much of the play keeps us equally enchanted and disturbed, the twinkle in Kate Valk's eyes as she readies for the dance offers relief from the burden of the play's emotional and social significance. Physically, too, throughout the play she's weighed down, laden with grease paint, layers of thick fabric, a bellowing voice, and dark, piercing eyes. The moment she dances, though, suddenly, and ephemerally, her body is free, her feet light, her eyes sparkling, her movements joyful.
For an excellent review of the play, see The New York Times.