Six Degrees of a Free Man of Color

Nicole Beharie and Jeffrey Wright in "A Free Man of Color." (T. Charles Erickson)
Nicole Beharie and Jeffrey Wright in "A Free Man of Color." (T. Charles Erickson)

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. 


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.