New Orleans in the early part of the 19th century was a singular place — and it still is. Before the Louisiana Purchase, the city’s racial and social barriers were permeable in ways they would never be again. John Guare’s latest play, the kaleidoscopic A Free Man of Color, now at the Vivian Beaumont Theater under the direction of George C. Wolfe, examines this gumbo through the eyes of Jacques Cornet, the wealthy, priapic free man of color of the title.
And it’s not just Cornet. The people who surround him — the quadroons and octoroons and mulattos and just plain white folks (like his half brother, Zeus-Marie Pincepoosse, who believes that Cornet has swindled him out of his inheritance), the South American heiresses, the giddy prostitutes, and Napoleon and Josephine — are just as crazily colorful.
The first act is a farce (Georges Feydeau even makes an appearance) as folks swirl and flutter like exotic birds and butterflies in and out of Cornet’s palatial home in New Orleans. The mess is watched with no little irony by Cupidon Murmur, Cornet’s slave — yes, people of color could own slaves — whose goal is to buy his freedom, which slaves in the territory could do. Indeed, Cornet himself was a slave, as was his mother.
Cornet, ever charming, was even able to sweet-talk his white father on his deathbed into giving up his plenitude. He’s also able to persuade every woman who passes by into giving up her virtue, whether it be Pincepoosse’s ninny of a common-law wife, the happy hookers of New Orleans or the otherwise proper wives of the local gentry, many of whom owe Cornet money. Of course, Cornet’s rampant rutting has to be punished, but that’s in Act 2.
In the second half, the play darkens as freewheeling Louisiana is sold to America by the disgruntled and debt-ridden Napoleon, who’s just had his clock cleaned in Haiti. A series of mishaps has Cornet fleeing retribution from all the chaps he’s cuckolded, as well as the new U.S. territory’s harsh racial codes — he even meets Meriwether Lewis in the wilderness, those “white spaces” that the maps left blank back in the day.