Monday, December 6, 2010

A Free Man of Color

A Free Man of Color, at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **1/2 out of ****

At the end of Act I, A Free Man of Color struck me as sprawling, bawdy and a bit confusing. Too many characters, too much going on in too many places.

But in Act II, John Guare's play came together in way that made sense of everything I'd seen before. It was a compelling - even brilliant - finish. And the very last line will stay with me for a long time.

Jeffrey Wright is dazzling as Jacques Cornet, a playwright and a free man of color living in New Orleans.

Born to a slave mother, he purchased his freedom and became the heir of his wealthy white father. Cornet dresses like a dandy, seduces other men's wives at will and generally lives life to the fullest in a freewheeling city where race seemingly doesn't matter.

But between 1801 and 1806, the period in which A Free Man of Color takes place, New Orleans is in transition. Founded in 1718 by the French, the city was ceded to Spain in 1763, reverted back to France in 1801 and was sold to the United States in 1803 in the Louisiana Purchase.

Guare uses a broad canvas and historical figures such as Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson and Touissant Loverture to tell the story. He moves from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., France, Spain, the newly independent nation of Haiti and the vast unknown territory west of the Mississippi.

It's a lot to keep track of and I'll admit I sometimes felt a little lost in the sheer amount of history and number of characters and locations. (There are more than 30 people in the cast.) And while I wasn't offended by the bawdy humor, I just didn't find it all that funny a lot of the time.

But I have to give director George C. Wolfe credit for the play holding together as well as it does. It was always interesting to watch and I was never bored.

Mos (formerly Mos Def) was excellent as Cornet's slave, Murmur, and as Toussaint Louverture, leader of the slave revolt in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Louverture makes an emotional plea to the United States, as one young democracy to another, to help his newly independent nation of Haiti.

As Meriwether Lewis, the secretary to John McMartin's President Thomas Jefferson, I found Paul Dano's youthful eagerness and desire for adventure so appealing. He's chafing to get out of Washington and explore the new territory that the United States has acquired.

And it was pretty exciting to see Joseph Marcell tackle a dramatic role as the dignified Dr. Toubib, Cornet's physician who acts as a narrator. Of course I know him as Geoffrey, the proper British butler on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

The sets by David Rockwell and costumes from Ann Hould-Ward were lavish. And some of the imagery was stunning, including a boatload of slaves being deported from Haiti, Mardi Gras revelers and the vast whiteness that represented the unexplored parts of the North American continent.

The play is a character study and a snapshot of New Orleans at a particular time in history. But I think most importantly, Guare is making a powerful statement about how our lofty ideals as a nation sometimes conflict with our actions.

Ironically, Cornet fears the return of the French, with their code noir that severely restricts the lives of black people, and feels a sense of relief with the arrival of the United States. After all, doesn't the Declaration of Independence say that all men are created equal?

As it turns out, Cornet will have much to fear from the Americans. (Jefferson helpfully informs him that "all men are created equal" isn't in the Constitution.)

What happens shows how tenuous life for a black man could be, even for a supposedly free man of color. And Wright is especially powerful as Cornet's fortune changes.

I wouldn't recommend A Free Man of Color to every theatergoer. But if you're interested in the time period or the history of New Orleans or the history of race in America, or if you just want to see an ambitious new American play, I think this is one you'll be talking about afterward.

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