Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def first performed together in the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway production of Topdog/Underdog, then followed that success with the film Cadillac Records, in 2008. Now they're together again in playwright John Guare's A Free Man of Color, which opened Thursday at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York City. It runs through Jan. 9.
Wright, with his Shakespearean cred, and Mos (he drops "Def" for this show), famed as a rapper, might not seem to be the most natural acting team, but very major people — including director George C. Wolfe (Jelly's Last Jam; Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk; Angels in America) and Guare (The House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation) — recognized their formidable chemistry.
Wolfe and Guare couldn't have found a more demanding vehicle for Mos and Wright. Set in New Orleans in the early 19th century — when there were 100 terms for people of color — the play takes the form of a Restoration comedy, with the action moving around the country and to Europe, along the way introducing us to Napoleon, Toussaint Louverture and Thomas Jefferson. Wright takes the lead as a flamboyant playboy — the free man of color — and Mos plays his patient, not altogether willing, manservant. The Root caught up with the two actors opening night at Lincoln Center Theater, where they talked about their partnership, their love for director Wolfe and the joys of acting.
The Root: What do you like about the play?
Mos Def: It's beautifully written and has lots of humor. It's a very human play, with very real emotional situations. Audiences might think it's over the top, but the tone and language are very appropriate to the time and place.
Jeffrey Wright: It's an epic, with far-reaching political, sociological, historical and emotional ramifications and subtexts. It's very rare as an actor to get a chance to exercise the muscles required by this kind of play. The playwright takes full license to subvert many preconceptions and prejudices. The stakes are very high.
TR: It seems that it would be very tough to act because of the extravagant language and the unusual vitality and exuberance of the action and characters. How do you manage?
JW: It is the most demanding role I've ever had. It requires an incredible amount of oxygen. But George [Wolfe] gives us a very clear and crisp perspective. He lets us know the level of performance that it takes. Each act requires different energy. We learn to go moment to moment, usually finding at a certain point in the play that it's building the way we want it to.
MD: He sees inside of you and finds out what you're capable of. He's very interested in people in a spiritual way. Even when you don't trust yourself, he trusts you, and that helps you develop. There's a kind of alchemy with him. In fact, there's a kind of alchemy among the three of us now, and also among the cast. We laugh lot when we're rehearsing.
JW: George is the best director in the business. No one surpasses him; only Ang Lee comes close. He's demanding in a completely disarming way. He's sort of a frustrated actor. In rehearsal, he plays every role. He knows the material inside out. It's great because we've all built this play together for the first time. And we reinvent it nightly.
TR: You two must like working together.
JW: [Laughing] No, I hate it. But it's better this time than Topdog because then we played brothers. At least now he's my slave!
MD: [Laughing] Who finally wins his freedom. Couldn't have been soon enough.
TR: How does acting in theater compare with acting in film?
JW: There's no comparison. I call film acting stunt work. For 33 seconds you try to take on an expression that will look really cool. That's it. You do that over and over again. A good director can make you look like you are giving the best performance of all time, and a bad director can take the same material and make it look the opposite.
TR: And theater?
JW: You have to create a whole world. Americans tend to have an inferiority complex about their theater and feel beholden to a European aesthetic, which I find bothersome and a little tiresome. Look at this play. It delves into the full complexity of who we are. It's in an American setting by a great American playwright grappling with great American themes.
MD: From the time I started going to plays as a kid, I loved the possibilities — the different stories and the different characters all coming alive, teaching me something new about life. As an actor, you have time to discover many things, among them the nuances of storytelling. Once a week, I read this play all the way through again and find things I'd never been aware of.
JW: Acting felt like testifying. It felt useful to me. I liked telling stories. It's mysterious. But you're beholden to a lot of forces as an actor; not all of them are friendly. It's not all champagne and kisses. My passion for acting has been renewed with this experience — that's one reason I work with George whenever I can. He rekindles my passion.
TR: What do you hope audiences take away from the play?
JW: That they've had an experience that's all their own. And not to be fearful of it because it is a fair reflection of the American experience. Challenging, yes, but it's part of the price of being who we are. It takes you out of your comfort zone; it's subversive.
TR: What's the moral of A Free Man of Color?
MD: That the more people are free, the better we will be. That we all have a right to self-determination and should not be defined by others.
Valerie Gladstone, who writes about the arts for many publications, including the New York Times, recently co-authored a children's book with Jose Ivey, A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student.