I am a big fan of John Guare’s work. Six Degrees of Separation, The House of Blue Leaves and the screenplay for Atlantic City are all, unquestionably, brilliant. I am a (guarded) fan of his most recent work, A Free Man of Color, chronicling the rise of America as a superpower after the Louisiana Purchase by telling the story of the fall of a once-free black aristocrat. I appreciate the ambition, and as a nonwhite artist who routinely traffics in depictions of white folks, I encourage and defend Guare’s right to create protagonists who don’t share his skin tone.
Still, I am troubled by his handling of Jacques Cornet, the eponymous lead in A Free Man of Color, in a way that’s very similar to the way I was troubled by Guare’s most famous black character, Paul, the con man in Six Degrees of Separation. It is dispiriting to watch one of our country’s most interesting playwrights, a deep and dramatic thinker, create relatively shallow and stereotypical black protagonists.
A Free Man of Color begins in New Orleans in 1801, two years before the Louisiana Purchase. In Act 1, New Orleans is portrayed as a lawless, nearly color-blind paradise of dissipation, Casablanca on the bayou, and Cornet (Jeffrey Wright, excellent as always) is its caramel prince.
In Act 2, after the U.S. takes over, “La Louisiane” becomes just another slaveholding Southern state, and Cornet, a former slave owner, is thrown into shackles himself. This is all terrific stuff, brilliant fodder for a nuanced yet searing indictment of the American experiment. Unfortunately, the heart of Guare’s play, Cornet, is so underimagined in the first act that he never becomes real.
I understand that A Free Man of Color is huge in scope, straddling the end of the classical European age and the beginning of American modernism. I understand that the first act is a post-Restoration comedy along the lines of Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer or Sheridan’s School for Scandal, while the second act is, by design, deeper and more modern. I understand that in the spirit of Goldsmith and Sheridan, dick jokes are both inescapable and irresistible.
And yet … ?
With the character of Jacques, we have a rare, free, turn-of-the-19th-century man of color, the prince of pre-American New Orleans, a self-made man, an explorer, and the purported designer and purveyor of the wrought iron filigree that to this day is the signature design element of America’s most interesting city. Does the playwright explore any of this? Mainly what we know about Cornet is that he swoons over rare fabric swatches and has a penis the size of a small boy’s arm.