A Free Man of Color
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 4, 2010
John Guare's new play A Free Man of Color is a significant disappointment. The mode of storytelling feels sloppy and undercooked and the deliberate allusions to a number of famous comedies feel contrived rather than sophisticated or amusing; the plot and characters are generally unconvincing and the occasional revisionist history seems purposeless; the themes are undeveloped; and the production as a whole—26 actors, a zillion lavish sets and costumes—comes off as overcompensation of the highest order. Add to that the fact that one of the central premises of the story is that Jacques Cornet (pronounced "Cornay"), the eponymous protagonist of the piece, has a very large penis (which has made him exceedingly popular with the ladies of New Orleans), and the vulgarity and latent offensiveness of the work becomes clear. An entry on Lincoln Center Theater's blog calls A Free Man of Color "The Coast of Utopia meets Hellzapoppin'." Sadly, the more accurate metaphor is something like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson meets Dead Man's Cell Phone: one of our major playwrights (with The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation to his credit) is for whatever reason slumming here, indulging in the lazy and self-conscious fourth-wall-demolishing post-this-and-that theatre of younger playwrights who should be learning from him instead of the other way around.
A Free Man of Color takes place mostly in New Orleans, from 1801 until 1806. When the play begins, New Orleans is under Spanish control (having been ceded to Spain by France after the Seven Years' War several decades earlier); it is, we are told, the most culturally diverse and tolerant city in the world, where the color of one's skin is not an impediment to success, social, financial, or otherwise. Indeed, Jacques Cornet is the richest man in town, having been left a huge fortune and a huge mansion by his father, who also freed Jacques (for Jacques's mother was a slave).
Jacques's family tree doesn't preclude him from owning slaves himself, though, and the one we get to know is Cupidon Murmur, who is Jacques's right hand man. Jacques's only other intimate friend is Dr. Toubib, another black man.
For the large reason already mentioned, Jacques is worshipped by the ladies of the town, from the prostitutes who work for Mme. Mandragola to the leading lights of society. He is, unsurprisingly, disliked by most of the males in New Orleans, especially his half-brother Zeus-Marie Pincepousse, who feels cheated out of his inheritance by his mulatto relation (Zeus's mother, presumably, was their father's Caucasian wife).
Guare never particularly gives us much reason to root for Jacques, who is indolent, vain, self-involved, and eager to make a cuckold of every man he knows. But he embroils Jacques in schemes borrowed from famous plays—Jonson's Volpone and Wycherley's The Country Wife are the most obvious antecedents—which are supposed to be funny but just feel labored. Then, near the end of the play, he gets Jacques wrapped up in some of the important historical events of the day, such as the Louisiana Purchase and the slaves' uprising in Haiti. Guare gives us a scene where Jacques debates slavery and freedom with no less a personage than Thomas Jefferson, and later has him narrate the final moments in the life of Merriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame). Napoleon, Talleyrand, diplomat Robert Livingston, and Toussaint Louverture are all depicted doing more or less what they actually did (though the depictions are generally jokey and irreverent) and a fictitious character named Dona Polissena Creux is shown to have discovered the cause of yellow fever a century before Walter Read.
Whither this would-be madcap journey into history? As far as I can tell, Guare's main idea is to feed our 21st century guilt, reminding us contemporary Americans of the injustices of slavery, racism, imperialism, and discrimination against women and our culpability for same. I much prefer the Guare of his great plays, where characters like Ouisa Kittredge and Artie Shaugnessy reflect back at us who we are now (or were, in 1990 and 1965, respectively), boldly and courageously.
George C. Wolfe's production is as much of a hodgepodge as the script. A lot of money has been spent to realize David Rockwell's elaborate set designs and Ann Hould-Ward's multitudinous costumes; and to pay the more than two dozen actors involved, many of whom play multiple characters. Jeffrey Wright and Mos have the leading roles of Jacques Cornet and Cupidon Murmur; Mos is occasionally affecting as the slave. Other theatre notables in the company include John McMartin as Jefferson; Veanne Cox as Dona Polissena, Robert Livingston, and Mme. Mandragola; and Sara Gettelfinger as Jacques's harridan of a wife; these and others in the company are generally wasted in roles that give them little opportunity to demonstrate their talents. Others in the cast have fallen prey to constant mugging (Triney Sandoval as both Napoleon and the Intendante (Spanish ruler) of New Orleans is the most prominent of these).
I should add that, in addition to its many other troubles, A Free Man of Color proves to be pretty dull for long stretches, especially in Act Two. While it's great to see so many theatre artists gainfully employed and Lincoln Center Theater's commitment to serving one of its most successful playwrights, it's a shame that the result feels so unsatisfactory. An article in Playbill tells us A Free Man of Color has been seven years in the making; surely in all that time someone must have realized along the way how badly astray the play had gone!