New Orleans in the early part of the 19th century was a singular place — and it still is. Before the Louisiana Purchase, the city's racial and social barriers were permeable in ways they would never be again. John Guare's latest play, the kaleidoscopic A Free Man of Color, now at the Vivian Beaumont Theater under the direction of George C. Wolfe, examines this gumbo through the eyes of Jacques Cornet, the wealthy, priapic free man of color of the title.
And it's not just Cornet. The people who surround him — the quadroons and octoroons and mulattos and just plain white folks (like his half brother, Zeus-Marie Pincepoosse, who believes that Cornet has swindled him out of his inheritance), the South American heiresses, the giddy prostitutes, and Napoleon and Josephine — are just as crazily colorful.
The first act is a farce (Georges Feydeau even makes an appearance) as folks swirl and flutter like exotic birds and butterflies in and out of Cornet's palatial home in New Orleans. The mess is watched with no little irony by Cupidon Murmur, Cornet's slave — yes, people of color could own slaves — whose goal is to buy his freedom, which slaves in the territory could do. Indeed, Cornet himself was a slave, as was his mother.
Cornet, ever charming, was even able to sweet-talk his white father on his deathbed into giving up his plenitude. He's also able to persuade every woman who passes by into giving up her virtue, whether it be Pincepoosse's ninny of a common-law wife, the happy hookers of New Orleans or the otherwise proper wives of the local gentry, many of whom owe Cornet money. Of course, Cornet's rampant rutting has to be punished, but that's in Act 2.
In the second half, the play darkens as freewheeling Louisiana is sold to America by the disgruntled and debt-ridden Napoleon, who's just had his clock cleaned in Haiti. A series of mishaps has Cornet fleeing retribution from all the chaps he's cuckolded, as well as the new U.S. territory's harsh racial codes — he even meets Meriwether Lewis in the wilderness, those "white spaces" that the maps left blank back in the day.
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.