A Free Man of Color

by John Guare
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Featuring Jeffrey Wright, Mos, John McMartin, Nicole Beharie
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont
production web site: http://www.lct.org/showMain.htm?id=198
November 18, 2010 — January 9, 2011

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
December 7, 2010

Joseph Marcell, Jeffrey Wright, Mos. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

A Free Man of Color is a rumination on the possibilities of color in a land under shifting rule.  Jacque Cornet (Jeffrey Wright) is a free man of color living well and himself a slave owner in the first years of the 19th century in New Orleans, on the cusp of that jurisdiction becoming part of the United States. In this world there is a wide array of people of a wide array of hues who work and play and do business with one another.  One character notes that in New Orleans people are “white, black, and everything in between. And there’s a lot in-between.”  In this production there is indeed a lot, too much, in-between the points of the story. In this case for this audience member, all these details do not lead in all cases to richness of story telling.

The huge cast of this play (and larger number of characters) would have terrorized me as a reader.  Some of my imaginary script reading concerns are born out in this production — not every person on stage is necessary for me to understand the overall arc of this narrative.  In fact, the redundancy of some characters, their dramatic purpose, serves to confuse my audience brain attempting to track the stories and the meaning.  Playbill dramaturgical notes remind us of once heard terms in history lessons — mulatto, sambo, quadroon — reminders of the delicately calibrated social hierarchies based on heritage and upon appearance, tone, color.

Narration is handed off from character to character as the international stage is set for international interest in the land that includes the wonderous world of New Orleans in the years from 1801 through 1806.  One such narrator/guide/observer is funny and wise Cupidon Murmur (Mos), Cornet’s slave.  In 1801 we encounter a land where people of every hue lived and worked, and where, as one white character indicates in the endless series of character’s introducing themselves crafted by the playwright:  here a white man has skin that is only a color, and doesn’t convey any particular privilege.  That is, prior to the Louisiana Purchase and New Orleans joining the young United States of America.

U.S. President Thomas Jefferson (John McMartin) delivers balanced prose that addresses Jefferson’s perhaps incoherent position as the (now proven) father of many children by his slave woman Sally Hemmings and owner of many slaves , who also is supportive of Cornet’s position against slavery as a man of color who in fact owns slaves.  They want to do the right thing but don’t want the government to commend them.  Jefferson intones: “The State’s business is not the Government’s business.”

Meriwether Lewis (Paul Dano) begins as Jefferson’s secretary and is soon assigned to lead a mission to explore the newly acquired (and uncharted) Louisiana Territory.  These adventures in the wilderness define his journey and that of exile Cornet in the second act.  Lewis is enthused about his task:  “I want to chart the unknown.”  And this proves his undoing, his psychic unhinging.  Reality and metaphor are revealed to be both a legitimate goal and an impossible dream.

Reg Rogers, Jeffrey Wright. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

Some of the most powerful stage images and, to my tastes, the most powerful dramatic moments come in the second act of this production, when adventures outside New Orleans have begun, when the puffery and costumed cartoon colors and ornate sets are put aside and when the action and the storytelling is streamlined.  The duel between Cornet and his white half-brother (they share a father) Pincepousse (Reg Rogers) is one such moment, depicted at right.

Director George C. Wolfe manages a monster (set pieces and numbers of characters and varying time frames and international locales) with entertaining delicacy and clarity.  Costumes by Ann Hould-Ward are over the top and parsimonious, as necessary.  Sets by David Rockwell are both ornate and streamlined as necessary.  A favorite is the initial (and ultimate) set scene —  a gobo-lit greenish and gold columned rich dark plank floored opportunity. Lighting by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer is sometimes gasp-worthy, especially evoking moonlight and dense folliage.  In short, the colors of costumes and New Orleans bawdy houses explode on the stage in the first act, followed in the second act by spare shadows and lights of forests and wilderness and unknown expanses.

International history, bawdy sex farce behavior, characters announcing themselves and acting out, heads of state in bathtubs with toy cannons strapped over their private parts.  Humor in service of history in service of layers of understanding of a layered and misunderstood past.  And in the end, the long show provides passages of pastiche, of historical event mash-ups in the name of story telling, and also some exquisite and moving speeches and interactions.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 9, 2010)

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