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October 25th, 2010

A Free Man of Color

I love going to the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center.  It's a beautiful house (on the inside, if a little 60's industrial on the outside), with nice acoustics and good sightlines and fairy comfortable seats.  The productions are grand but not glitzy, and even when Not My Cuppa, are always thought-provoking.

A Free Man of Color was so thought-provoking, I hardly know what to say.

First of all, it's wonderful to see a play about history and race that's historically accurate, undeniably tragic, and killingly funny. Jacques Cornet (played by Jeffrey Wright) is a free man of color in Spanish New Orleans, where everyone knows the exact proportions of their blood, and uses a specific word to describe it.  Cornet is extremely wealthy, having persuaded his white father to make him his sole heir, and is much courted by the society of New Orleans, black, white, and mixed.  A notable dandy and Don Juan, he is beloved by all the women, distrusted but flattered by their husbands, and, when the play opens, absolutely certain that his devil-may-care, privileged way of life will continue indefinitely. 


There follows nearly three hours of an amalgam of European and American history, in which the plot and the scene leapfrogs from Napolean (in his gilded bathtub, with a back scrubber), Tallyrand, and Josephine arguing over muslins and the English to Toussaint Louverture begging the French and the Americans for help in his quest for freedom and democracy to King Carlos IV of Spain to Thomas Jefferson arguing with his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, at the beginning of his presidency.  During all of this, Santo Domingo gets turned into Haiti, New Orleans gets flipped from Spain to France to America like a hot potato, Le Code Noir is revoked and invoked, Napolean's brother dies in Santo Domingo of the Yellow Fever, Cornet kills his half-brother Zeus-Marie Pincepoose (how I love that name!) in a semi-fair duel, and the laissez-faire racial gumbo of late 18th c. New Orleans is sifted and sieved into the indigestible, fear-driven repressive structure that has determined the American discourse on race ever since.

Not that New Orleans in 1801 was a perfect place for all POC.  Jacques Cornet himself owns slaves--most notably the long-suffering Cupidon Murmur (played by Mos, who also plays Toussaint Louverture, and is apparently a rap artist when he's not acting the hell out of two very difficult parts in a 3 hour play, part of which is in verse, omg).  Women of all colors are pretty universally are exploited, disregarded, and disenfranchised, by the playwright John Guare (who wrote Six Degrees of Separation) as well as by the society he's showing us.  And Cornet himself, though funny and clever and passionate, is also an egotistical, self-aggrandizing, womanizing opportunist, who promises to free Murmur and then doesn't, and repulses his half-brother's mistress, who Cornet has seduced and impregnated. 

Not that any white (or whitish) character in the play is any better.  Napolean is obsessed by beating the English, King Carlos is in thrall to his spoiled daughter's whims, Jefferson is more interested in what's for dinner and playing his violin than in governing the country, the gentlemen of New Orleans are interested in sexual conquests and money and the appearance of power.  This is not a play that has much good to say about the nobility of human nature.  The closest it has to a hero is Toussaint Louverture, who Guare allows to speak for himself, with quotes from his letters to Napoleon and Jefferson, and he is denied tragic status, shuffled off-stage as he was off the stage of history.

As you can probably tell, this was another case of 10 pounds of play in a 5 pound sack.  What with all the leaping to and fro (and in and out of various beds), it was hard to tell where or when you were, or what was going on at any given time.  Towards the end, Guare, probably anxious that his point wasn't clear, sticks in a lot of long speeches, pointing out this irony or that connection.  And the end, which should  be harrowing, feels stuck on and anti-climactic.

And yet, and yet.

When a nice gentleman waiting in line for a glass of $7 white wine asked me how I liked it, I said I loved it.  And I wasn't just being polite.  I haven't been to a lot of new plays that have that much life and thought and scholarship in them.  Every play Lincoln Center does has a companion issue of the Lincoln Center Theater Review, which you can buy for $1, containing articles about writing the play and the history behind it and other interesting bits and pieces.  This issue is a doozy, and contains, among other things, an article by Ned Sublette on the influences of the Haitian revolution on New Orleans and the importance of the theater in early 19th C. culture.  Reading it on my way home on the subway, I realized that all of that had been in A Free Man of Color, too, as well as a meditation on the emptiness of celebrity and the dangers of idealism and the essential selfishness of human nature.  Plus some truly dazzling language and meaty, thoughtful roles for actors of all colors.  What (from my point of view, anyway) was not to like?  I hope it runs and runs, but I fear it won't.  Too scary.  Too negative.  Too ambiguous.  Too long.


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