The moral of John Guare’s epic, A Free Man of Color, seems to be that history is always going to beat you in the end. Sadly, the play itself falls victim to that inevitable truth.
In this opulent, sprawling opus, Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright) is a dashing, Casanova-like roué, the richest man in New Orleans, and an insatiable quaffer of the finest life has to offer. He’s caparisoned in the richest of satins and an extravagant wig, and he’s served by a wry, skeptical slave, Murmus (Mos Def). He’s also a mulatto – the son of a rich plantation owner and a slave – but in the freewheeling fantasia of race-mixing New Orleans, that’s no impediment to living a decadent life of 18th-century aristocratic luxury debauching your friends’ all-too-willing wives. But the 19th century, with its dour black frockcoats, Victorian morality and manifest destiny is bearing down on this paradise, and even the influence and dash of Jacques is no match for it.
Counterpointing the romantic and financial escapades of Jacques, a panoply of history plays out, as Guare depicts the comedy of errors behind the United States’ acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase, from the squabbles of Napoleon (Triney Sandoval) and Josephine (Justina Machado) to a world-weary Thomas Jefferson (John McMartin) trying to negotiate international politics for his very young country.
Directed by veteran showman George Wolfe, the play exults in its far-reaching scope and dramatic shifts – and rightly so. The script encompasses references from Shakespeare and Lord Rochester; stylized tableaux and comic asides; scenes of brutal degradation, high ideals and low comedy – and the nimble production manages to keep its 40-some characters moving through their paces, extracting excellent performances particularly from Veanne Cox as the dour science-driven matron who falls for Jacques’s charms and Mos Def as his slave, who doesn’t.
Between the grandeur, the goofiness and the standout performances, there’s a lot in this disorganized drama to capture the audience’s interest, but the dots don’t always connect even when the lines are begging to be drawn – like Jacques’s parallel passions for women and for maps, which surge conveniently as needed to further the plot. Or, for that matter, the boisterous phallic references and imagery throughout the play and the almost equally pervasive theme of the unexplored white space on the map.
Some of the fault may lie with the editing of the play, reportedly cut in half to its current two-and-a-half hour length, and that may well account for the unevenness in pace and tempo that increasingly mars the work as it progresses.
The play’s “big move” is when the Restoration romantic and civic antics (based on William Wycherly’s The Country Wife) that comprise its bulk give way abruptly to the bleak, mystic landscape of empty whiteness through which Merriweather Lewis (Paul Dano) seeks a passage west, and the giddy, verbose humor with which the play opens turns to an eerie, retributive gloom. The real problem is that the history that’s supposedly behind this shift doesn’t seem to have any real force – or at least not one revolutionary enough to completely derail the play’s genre.
Despite its length, this drama doesn’t show how people change from thinking like they’re in the 18th century to thinking like they’re in the 19th; from being any color to being white or black; from being free to being enslave – just the events leading up to these shifts and the stark results. We know things will change, we know why they will change, but we don’t actually see how people themselves move through the history they’re part of. And without that understanding, A Free Man of Color, despite the drama and pathos of its events, doesn’t master comedy, tragedy, or even history.