Review of A Free Man of Color: A Historical Play with Modern Significance
Performed at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, New York
One of the biggest challenges for modern people trying to understand history is to conceive of the past beyond stereotypes. When we use Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of Civil Rights resistance, we must also consider the troops of housecleaners, preachers, construction workers, teachers and others earlier in the 20th century whose unyielding efforts made the movement work. In the 19th century, when we lionize Harriet Tubman and the brave people she brought to freedom, we must also cherish the imperfect people who did not escape. They are our Southern ancestors. And when we think of pre-Civil War America, we can’t simply conceive of black slavery and white masters – especially in New Orleans. We must consider the people of color who were both owners and, at various times and in various ways, enslaved.
That is the clear intention of the production, A Free Man of Color, by playwright John Guare and director George C. Wolfe Jr, which has just opened at New York’s Lincoln Center. It is a complex and intimate play, attempting to encompass the sweep of history from French colonial New Orleans to just after the Louisiana Purchase, including the influence of Spain, the United States and San Domingue (Haiti) on the sale .
Following the French and American revolutions, the revolution in Haiti created such economic and political drains on France that it was anxious to sell the unwieldy Louisiana territory to the United States in 1803. A Free Man of Color begins in 1801 during the change-over from the colonial to the so-called democratic government. The core of A Free Man of Color is the effect of all these politics and economic ambitions on an individual, Jacques Cornet.
Beautifully played by Broadway actor Jefferey Wright, Cornet is an 18th century dandy who prances and womanizes, poses in powdered wigs and satin pants, and cares nothing at all that he is attended to by the whites, Spanish and French characters who make up the 32-member cast only because his wealth puts him in charge. This also makes Cornet a stereotype. He is an extreme bon vivant, a whoremonger of women of every shape and color, too blissfully nonchalant to his white-half brother, the Spanish ambassador, the smelly frontiersmen and the immigrants to New Orleans. All of this has a ring of truth, but wrapped up together, it is reality on steroids.
While parody is not bad, it can sometimes be dangerous. In this case, the tan-skinned Cornet’s colored counterparts are either brown-skinned, intelligent and humble, or brown-skinned, sly and enslaved. There are many opportunities to interpret these characters as the play’s pitfalls – as they reach deep into the stereotypes of race, color and class.
But because A Free Man of Color begins as a comedy of manners – highlighting the 17th century style of French drama which relies on clear cut villains and heroes, who make private asides to the audiences – it is bound by stereotypes. Think Molière’s Tartuffe and you’ll recognize the type of theater via stereotypes that can limit the playwright.