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A CurtainUp Review
A Free Man of Color
It's New Orleans in the early years of the country's infancy around the time of the Louisiana Purchase. About to become part of the United States, New Orleans was still called "the free-est city in the world," with a multiracial, freewheeling culture of its own. But that was due to change.
The story is fascinating. But, alas, the production is incohesive. Running over two and a half hours, the tale is so hefty with diverging plots and ambitious fictional and historical characters, that it feels longer. Hold on though because there is a payoff in the last act.
The central character is Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright), an affluent, womanizing mulatto, who bought his freedom from his white father, a plantation owner. His mother was a slave. He tells his story through a play he is writing.— in other words, Guare's setup is a play within a play. His sassy slave, Murmur (Mos, formerly known as Mos Def), scoffs, "does your masterpiece have a title?" Cornet response: " A Free Man of Color." His explanation as to what it's about: "The sanctity of surfaces. The value of veneer." Very appropriate since Cornet is the toast of New Orleans, a fashion plate in his fashionable foppish clothes.
Cornet is also rumored to have a penis which accodring to one swooning companion, is like "the neck of a flamingo flying home. . .and you're the nest." There are numerous references to his genitalia and tiresome sophomoric sexual humor. Still, he's apparently irresistible and no one's wife is save around him which causes his own wife (Sara Gettelfinger) to be crazed with jealousy.
Besides the philandering, maps are Cornet's other passion. He is looking for the inland river believed to cross the unexplored Louisiana territory which could efficiently ship to him new treasures. With the territorial expansion in mind, numerous characters enter and leave n side forays to Haiti, Paris and Madrid: Thomas Jefferson (John McMartin), Meriwether Lewis (Paul Cano), Napoleon (Triney Sandoval), and Haitian revolutionary, Toussaint L'Ouverture (also played by Mos). The first act quickly becomes a kaleidoscope of themes, broad humor and conspiracies.
Things calm down in the second act. Cornet undergoes a transformation and must exist in a vastly different New Orleans under the United States Constitution. Thomas Jefferson is shown in a less heroic light than usual. When the two meet at the end, the infant United States is offered a glimpse of its future.
The play features over 40 characters and actors play multiple parts. Jeffrey Wright is effective — maddening, as Cornet, the dandy in Act I, more empathetic in Act II after his adventure into the unknown territory. Just as important a stage presence is Mos in his roles , as Cornet's slave, Murmur, Toussaint L'Ouverture and lends each character distinctive identities. (theater goers may remember that Mos, like Wright, was also in Susan Lori-Park's Pulitzer Prize winning Top Dog/Underdog).
Veanne Cox shows prim assurance as scientist, Dona Polissena, searching for a cure for yellow fever, and Nicole Beharie is a vivacious Margery, the wife of Cornet's half-brother, Pincepousse (Reg Rogers). John McMartin portrays Thomas Jefferson with chilly remoteness.
Guare's arch dialogue, sometimes spoken in rhyme and other times in direct address to the audience, is occasionally clever. Wolfe's direction is remindful of a symphony played prestissimo with many movements to perform. The production looks beautiful. Rockwell's sets move smoothly into place, setting the various new displays with sleek efficiency. The uncharted territory is featured as white space, its blankness spelling the unknown.
A Free Man of Color took eight years to put together. Tbough admirably ambitious in scope and despite its visual beauty and fascinating era, it is over encumbered and feels unfinished. A case of style over substance. It is not until the play is almost over that Guare seems to settle down and make his aim clear. It's lamentable that it takes so long to fully communicate such rich material.