Six Degrees of a Free Man of Color
With his play Six Degrees of Separation, John Guare missed out on an opportunity to create a fully nuanced, black male character. He's at it again with the stereotypes in 'A Free Man of Color.' And even the fabulous Jeffrey Wright can't fix that.
Now, transposing the post-Restoration British sex farce to a former French colony and making the oversexed (in every sense of the word) fop a man of color -- free or otherwise -- is inspired. It is dangerously, deliciously un-PC and, if handled more subtly, would have elevated A Free Man of Color into a classic. Instead, the success of the play rests entirely on the transcendent second act, the modern world.
This is not Guare's first relatively stereotypical depiction of a black lead. When I first saw Six Degrees, I was dazzled. What a story! What a lovely send-up of the haute bourgeoisie! A gay, black street kid plays Eliza Doolittle to a rich white kid's Henry Higgins. Then, armed with his new knowledge of how to act and speak rich, he wreaks havoc on Upper East Side aristocrats.
In fact, I was even more dazzled, as were many, when the true story on which Guare based his most famous play came to light.
The real "Paul" was named David Hampton. No urban street kid at all, but the eldest son of an attorney from Buffalo, N.Y. He wasn't Eddie Murphy in Trading Places; he was a gay Theo Huxtable. He was a bright, troubled upper-middle-class kid determined to break into the upper, upper class by any means necessary.
Unlike Guare's character, Hampton, then an unsuccessful 17-year-old actor, stumbled onto the idea of pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier after it worked once to get him into Studio 54. The young actor decided that he had found the role of a lifetime, and soon dedicated himself to conning money out of the wealthy. He was finally arrested, and two of his marks happened to be Guare's friends.
After the success of the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play and the film starring Will Smith, Hampton promised to go straight. Instead, he continued his life as a con artist, dangerously harassed Guare, and was in and out of jail until his death in an AIDS hospice in 2003. He was 39.
Look, it's damned hard creating unforgettable, irreplaceable characters. In Hampton, Guare was given one but chose instead to rest on stereotype. In A Free Man of Color's Cornet, Guare once again creates a black character who is unnecessarily limited.
Trey Ellis is a novelist, screenwriter, playwright and essayist and an assistant professor at Columbia University. He is the author of the play Fly, produced by the Lincoln Center Institute.