The Root Interview: Jeffrey Wright, Mos Def on 'Free Man of Color'

The two actors began their onstage partnership in 2002 with 'Topdog/Underdog,' and now they're back in 'A Free Man of Color.' The dynamic duo spoke to The Root about what it's like to work together again.

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Jeffrey Wright (left) and Mos Def (Getty Images)

Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def first performed together in the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway production of Topdog/Underdog, then followed that success with the film Cadillac Records, in 2008. Now they're together again in playwright John Guare's A Free Man of Color, which opened Thursday at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York City. It runs through Jan. 9.

Wright, with his Shakespearean cred, and Mos (he drops "Def" for this show), famed as a rapper, might not seem to be the most natural acting team, but very major people -- including director George C. Wolfe (Jelly's Last Jam; Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk; Angels in America) and Guare (The House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation) -- recognized their formidable chemistry.

Wolfe and Guare couldn't have found a more demanding vehicle for Mos and Wright. Set in New Orleans in the early 19th century -- when there were 100 terms for people of color -- the play takes the form of a Restoration comedy, with the action moving around the country and to Europe, along the way introducing us to Napoleon, Toussaint Louverture and Thomas Jefferson. Wright takes the lead as a flamboyant playboy -- the free man of color -- and Mos plays his patient, not altogether willing, manservant. The Root caught up with the two actors opening night at Lincoln Center Theater, where they talked about their partnership, their love for director Wolfe and the joys of acting.

The Root: What do you like about the play?

Mos Def: It's beautifully written and has lots of humor. It's a very human play, with very real emotional situations. Audiences might think it's over the top, but the tone and language are very appropriate to the time and place.

Jeffrey Wright: It's an epic, with far-reaching political, sociological, historical and emotional ramifications and subtexts. It's very rare as an actor to get a chance to exercise the muscles required by this kind of play. The playwright takes full license to subvert many preconceptions and prejudices. The stakes are very high.

TR: It seems that it would be very tough to act because of the extravagant language and the unusual vitality and exuberance of the action and characters. How do you manage?

JW: It is the most demanding role I've ever had. It requires an incredible amount of oxygen. But George [Wolfe] gives us a very clear and crisp perspective. He lets us know the level of performance that it takes. Each act requires different energy. We learn to go moment to moment, usually finding at a certain point in the play that it's building the way we want it to.

MD: He sees inside of you and finds out what you're capable of. He's very interested in people in a spiritual way. Even when you don't trust yourself, he trusts you, and that helps you develop. There's a kind of alchemy with him. In fact, there's a kind of alchemy among the three of us now, and also among the cast. We laugh lot when we're rehearsing.

JW: George is the best director in the business. No one surpasses him; only Ang Lee comes close. He's demanding in a completely disarming way. He's sort of a frustrated actor. In rehearsal, he plays every role. He knows the material inside out. It's great because we've all built this play together for the first time. And we reinvent it nightly.

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