The Root Review: A Free Man of Color
Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright team up to deliver a frantic -- and tragic -- comedy that highlights the end of the unique racial openness of New Orleans before it became American.
The production is opulent and frantic, with fantastic costumes and jewelry; chandeliers and sconces; and plushy furniture, trapdoors and moving pieces everywhere. Wolfe revels in the sheer daffiness of everything, as do his actors. Unfortunately, this gives the play a shapeless, slapdash feel, especially in the first act; the darker Act 2 is more coherent.
Jeffrey Wright is a wondrous Cornet. A type straight out of Restoration comedy, he's a pig and a fop, but irresistible. He's even capable of compassion, at one point falling into the hold of a coffin ship coming from Haiti and being shocked by the human misery. Prop director Scott Laule creates for this scene a forest of black beseeching hands that are the show's one moment of real horror. Former rapper Mos Def is an excellent Murmur, sarcastic and all knowing with his asides to the audience; in the end, he does what he has to do to secure his freedom. He also plays a noble and tragic Toussaint Louverture.
Everyone in the huge, glittering cast is good, as a matter of fact. Reg Rogers is bitter and dissolute as Pincepoosse, and Nicole Beharie is delightfully airheaded as his "country wife," beside herself with happiness to be in a city as multifarious and free as New Orleans. Paul Dano stands out as a callow and idealistic Meriwether Lewis, and John McMartin is excellent as a thoughtful and ruthlessly pragmatic Jefferson; he cancels aid to the newly liberated Haiti because he might need the French, and of course, he does nothing about slavery.
Triney Sandoval is over the top as Napoleon, who is such a megalomaniac that he bathes with his medals and ribbons. When he emerges from his tub, he even has a cannon strapped to an otherwise vulnerable part of his body. Justina Machado is good as both his spoiled Josephine and the wife of the Spanish Intendante, and Veanne Cox is hilarious as the otherwise frigid and scientifically bent Dona Polissena, who thaws out considerably when she discovers Cornet's charms. She also appears as both a madam and Robert Livingston, Jefferson's dotty envoy to France.
Both Guare and Wolfe wanted to show America's great promise and diversity as well as its tragedy and contradictions in A Free Man of Color. They've succeeded brilliantly.
Arlene McKanic is a freelance writer from Queens, N.Y., and Blair, S.C.