A Free Man of Color
Written by John Guare
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Location: Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York City
Set Design by David Rockwell
Lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer
Costumes by Ann Hould-Ward
Starring Jeffery Wright, Mos, Reg Rogers, Nicole Beharie, Joesph Marcell, Triney Sandoval, Justina Machado, Esau Pritchett, Teyonah Parris, Brian Reddy, Rosal Colon, Robert Stanton, Wendy Rich Stetson, David Emerson Toney, Nick Mennel, Peter Bartlett, Veanne Cox
Overly-ambitious play has enough brilliant moments to create a memorable theatrical experience.
With his latest play, A Free Man of Color, playwright John Guare stakes his claim in the sprawling terrain of a literary tradition that attempts to define, in a single work, what it is to be American. Like those that have come before him (Tocqueville, Melville, Steinbeck, Kushner even), the lasting effect of A Free Man of Color does not issue from the achievement of its aim, but from the unbelievable scale of its tremendous ambition. In the magnitude of the attempt, we glimpse a flickering reflection of what that hard to define American character consists of. Given the grandeur of its lofty aspirations, the play inevitably fails on some levels, like the idea of America itself. But the failure is spectacular, memorable and exciting. A Free Man of Color succeeds as an unforgettable theatrical experience surely to be remembered by audiences and the history books alike.
The play opens with a bare, open stage. The edge is trimmed with footlights and the comedy and tragedy masks adorn a proscenium arch, suggesting a theater from the past. Out steps the debonair Jacques Cornet played by the incomparable Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America, Topdog/Underdog), decked in full 18th century resplendence, complete with powdered wig and breeches. (Costumes by Ann Hould-Ward delight throughout.) Cornet tells the audience, in a direct address typical of the theater of that time, that we are about to see a play that celebrates the “sanity of surface, the value of veneer.” He drools over a newly arrived parcel of fine fabric and calls for his slave Murmur, played with skill by Mos (Topdog/Underdog), to arrange for the velvets to be made into suits. The order is met with sarcastic indifference, establishing the comic give and take between these two characters.
With the flourish of a hand, the bare stage transforms into the lush New Orleans parlor in Cornet’s mansion, in one of the production’s many swift transitions led by the artful direction of George C Wolfe (Angels in America, Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk). Cornet introduces us to the year of 1801 of New Orleans, where race we hear is a “celebration.” Out comes a cavalcade of characters too many to name, all of whom seek assistance from the powerful and rich Cornet. Each man represents a national interest: Spain, France and the newly formed United States are there to conduct business in the opulent port town Cornet calls home.
Emulating the classic writers of farce like Behn and Sheridan, John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation, House of Blue Leaves) begins his story as a sexual comedy centered on Cornet’s prodigious appetite. Women of all classes, from aristocrats to prostitutes, praise the protagonist’s prowess with such relentless repetition that it induces fatigue. Vibrant performances from Veanne Cox and Justina Machado, cast in several roles, keep the situations buoyant and well timed, saving some scenes from veering into the ridiculous.
Just when there seems like nothing can go wrong for the rake, who bought his freedom from his father right before he inherited the estate, rumors spread that the vicious Code Noir will be reinstated in New Orleans, as Spain relinquishes control of the port to France. Cornet stages an elaborate ruse to discover how and when the Code will be instated. The play whips back and forth between Europe, Haiti and back to Louisiana to explain the historical context of Cornet’s situation, not all of which comes together smoothly.
Despite ingenious transitions orchestrated by Wolfe and a talented cast, the historical vignettes provide so much information it’s hard to keep track of who is who, why the information is important, or how it relates to the previous scene. Once we finally return to Cornet’s bedroom his comic farce seems trite compared to the problems of weightier historical figures, like the leader of the Haitian slave rebellion Toussaint Louverture (Mos) who faces attack from France. Guare attempts to show how American slavery, Haitian politics, Napolean, Thomas Jefferson and Merriwether Lewis all converge in a historical watershed to change Cornet’s life, but does so in a literal way by staging each and every influence. The effect is overwhelming and undermines the dramatic impact. Like Cornet, we get lost in the history and cannot find our way out.
It is a marvel to see all of the different elements and characters at play on one stage, despite the cacophony. Excitement brews over what may happen next. In act two, sensational moments of scenography occur when the poetic lyricism of Guare’s language works in perfect unison with Wolfe’s staging to create compelling, lasting theatrical images. Set designer David Rockwell builds a fluid, moving tableau with picturesque precision.
As Cornet heads into unforeseen trouble, the play abandons its comic form and strikes a more serious tone. Although this makes intellectual sense, it is hard to make the transition emotionally as an audience member. Cornet, with his lascivious ways, is a character of extremity, fun, and not to be taken seriously. When the play asks you to sympathize with his despair, it is difficult not to see humor. The historicizing story-telling devices distance you from the character in a way that prevents you from seeing his downfall as tragic, despite the efforts of the production at its end.
Guare hangs the ambition of A Free Man of Color squarely on the virtuosic performance of Jeffrey Wright who holds a fractious text together with skill and charisma. The actor possesses his words with the entirety of his being in a way that you can see them, as a material, out of which he builds a scaffold to reach the pinnacle these extraordinary artists are striving for. Although you may come away from this monumental work unsettled, left with the feeling that you didn’t quite get to that place you set out for, you will be glad you have made the trip.