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.
Still, the efforts of Guare and director Wolfe to go further are tangible. There is constant dialogue about the political situation, racist laws and willing miscegenation. And the wigs fall off later in the play and the scenery takes on a modernist feel when the Free Man’s fortunes begin to decline. At the end, Coronet recognizes that he has lived frivolously and he gets a tragic comeuppance.
The tragedy of Louisiana’s joining the United States becomes apparent too. New York playgoers see the downfall of the free people of color as clearly as anyone who has lived in the 7th ward or talked to anyone from New Orleans or rural Louisiana whose families went back to before “les Americains” arrived. They will tell you that the next 200 plus years were an uphill battle. That brings us to today.
History for Today’s Audiences
The fact that the outside world has seen beyond Katrina to that tragedy’s historical beginnings is somewhat revelatory. How many people besides us knew that what we saw in the days after the storm was the result of a 200-year struggle being invisible? It’s good to know that the consciences of people away from New Orleans are still grappling with the consequences of bad choices made by the U.S. government, when the federal leadership bungled and tripped and then fell on us.
Perhaps people can now understand the place of our culture and environment in that long sweep of history – a series of political and racial splatters and missteps as far as we were concerned. Our local response was to do what we do in the gayest way possible — which may at first seem funny and outrageous to outsiders, but which, to us, has defined our being outside and within America. Our over-the-top culture has provided the means to survive the vagaries and prejudices of government from the colonial era through the U.S. Constitution which said people were equal and should be treated as such – everybody but us, of course.
The play A Free Man of Color addresses this inequality in America. But our New Orleans community has had a front row seat to this drama for centuries. One of the earliest written documents by free men of color is their 1804 letter to the American governor:
“We are Natives of this Province and our dearest Interests are connected with its welfare…We therefore feel a lively Joy that the Sovereignty of the Country is at length united with that of the American Republic. We are duly sensible that our personal and political freedom is thereby assured to us for ever, and we are also impressed with the full-est confidence in the Justice and Liberality of the Government towards every Class of Citizens which they have taken under their Protection.”
They were asking to keep all the rights given to them by the French colonial government. Their rights were not upheld by the Americans. Moreover, the mayor wrote in private correspondence, “Our militia will never be worth much while our numbers are so few and scattered over such an extensive country. They are moreover mingled with those very Negroes and free people of color whom we must necessarily always consider in a country where slavery exists to the extent it does here as political enemies.”
The U.S. government worried about revolution in Louisiana because of San Domingue but also because the people of African descent in New Orleans made up about two-thirds of the population, and 45 percent of them were free for the first four decades of the 19th century. This period included New Orleans’ 1803 entry into the United States and rise to one of the biggest and most important urban centers in the nation.
These first four decades of the 19th century were magnetic years for this city, the time when people from around the globe came to New Orleans, a port second only to New York when ships were lined up six deep at the riverfront. New Orleans’ free people of color and the enslaved were a significant part of the attraction – as labor, skilled tradesmen and merchants – and so a crucial component in the economy.
It was 1850 before the percentages of free people vis-à-vis of the general population diminished. Throughout this time, the free men were not the impotent, rakish fops that fiction then and now portrays. There were significant leaders such as François Boisdoré, an orator and second generation businessman who complained that moved educated men like him – war veterans and landowners – should be treated the same as whites, especially with regard to the vote. “When men come here from Ireland or Germany they are not treated like puppies. After they have been here a certain length of time, they are admitted to all the rights of freemen. Go to the registration office and see the crosses there of Irishmen and Germans who cannot write their names. There are no such men here,” he told a packed house of colored men in Economy Hall in the 1860s.
François Lacroix was “a millionaire traveling toward penniless poverty at the rate of fifty or a hundred thousand dollars per day – the old octoroon,” according to the Daily Picayune in 1874. A former free man of color who had lost his son in a march for the vote, Francois Lacroix stopped paying taxes. Whether because of losing his mind or in protest, this “owner of innumerable properties in New Orleans and adjoining parishes; owner of dwellings and stores which some months ago were paying an aggregate rental of $3,800 per month; sitting on the steps of the rostrum smoking a cigar while the auctioneer knocks down his houses and lands for a mere song.”
Andre Cailloux, whose funeral mass took place in the Saint Rose of Lima church on Bayou Road, was a hero of the Civil War. “Immense crowds of colored people had by this time gathered around the building and the streets leading there were rendered almost impassible…. Esplanade Street for more than a mile was lined with colored societies, both male and female, in rank order, waiting for the hearse to pass through,” according to the New York Times.
These are the free people of color and former slaves that the play doesn’t address – possibly can’t address given the drama’s structural and time limits. But, as playgoers, readers and the storytellers of our community’s history, we must have knowledge beyond the stereotypes.
Our Community Should Know
As written, Guare’s main character was a slave owner. It is true that many free people of color were slave owners. We should know that because Carter Woodson wrote Free Negro Owners of Slaves in 1924. Also one trip to the New Orleans Notorial Archives or the Conveyance Office will prove our local participation in slavery.
In the play, the slave owner and his enslaved servant took turns at outwitting and scheming on each other. People in our community still play such tricks, and we are divided and conquered still.
Guare’s main character was Jacques Cornet, a nobody as far as history goes. Other characters were Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Meriwether Lewis (of explorers Lewis and Clark.)We recognize them, but we know less of the people involved in our history. Rodolphe Desdunes wrote Our People and Our History in 1911, as part of a movement of intellectuals to set the record straight about people of African descent. This movement of writers included Martin Delany, William Wells Brown, and W.E.B. Dubois. We may know more about his book, The Philadelphia Negro, because Desdunes wrote in French and was published in Canada. The book didn’t reach English readers until 1973.
There are also people whose names are even less easily found. But we should know them by their smooth plaster surfaces, the marks of their ironwork, their bricklaying that supports the beams of our cherished old homes. We carry their traditions if we can do the brickwork, construction, the sewing and beading that made our culture precious. If we appreciate that, then we better understand the allusions to costume and fashion in the Guare play. Jacques Cornet is wedded to his clothes because he is a peacock, but also because adornment, color and style carried New Orleanians’ identities from the tignon to the Mardi Gras Indians.
So a grand, historical production like has much relevance for us, not just for white audiences who are discovering our history. It asks us too, what do we know about the past and how do we deal with its memories and mistakes. Like good theater, A Free Man of Color, makes us think. The gaudy, self-centered and comical Cornet fails. He disappears into anonymity. His prancing from bed to bed, frivolous spending and pompous immorality are seen finally, not simply as humorous, but wasteful.
Now that our Katrina drama is diminishing, perhaps it is time to consider what marks our community in the 21st century. Do we carry the flames of the past due to our knowledge and clear-mindedness, or do we reside in our gaiety and incompetence, living the stereotypes of ourselves?
A play such as A Free Man of Color, bringing the past of our community to the wider American stage suggests that we must continue to know who we are. And before time passes us by, we had better make sure that everyone knows our true worth.
FATIMA SHAIK is the author of four books and numerous articles set in New Orleans. A native of the 7th ward, she is completing a non-fiction account of the Société d’ Economie (Economy Society) and its radical, political and multi-ethnic black community of men who stepped onto the world’s stage, then disappeared. This article first appeared in the New Orleans Tribune.