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'A Free Man Of Color' is phenomenal theater

BY LINDA ARMSTRONG | 4/12/2011, 5:30 p.m.
Jeffrey Wright (seated center), Mos (standing center) and company T Charles Erickson photo)

"A Free Man of Color" is a funny, colorful piece of Broadway theater that tells the history of our country in a very entertaining way using an incredibly talented, racially mixed cast. Playwright John Guare gives us the story of a character named Jacques Cornet, a slave who had bought his freedom and is now living an extravagant life in New Orleans in the early 1800s.

Guare introduces us to Jacques when he is in his heyday. He is rich, and he is endowed with physical gifts that the ladies love, especially the wives of the businessmen with whom he deals

Jacques lives life on a very superficial basis and the most important things in the world to him are his clothes and having sex with as many women as he can. It doesn't matter what a woman looks like, Jacques will make her a conquest and do it repeatedly. (Of course he does this unbeknownst to their husbands.) The men who come to see Jacques and need his assistance in business matters are mainly white, and resent many things about Jacques.

As we look at Jacques' raunchy antics and see that he has aspirations to be politically important in society, we also observe that, though he is a former slave, he has no empathy for his own slaves, especially his main slave Murmur, who he keeps at his beck and call. While Murmur serves Jacques, he has some unspoken feelings about his master.

Jacques is so self-absorbed that, from the beginning of the production, he lets the audience know that he has written a play called "A Free Man of Color" and will proceed to perform it; of course, the production involves his having many sexual interludes throughout. In the midst of it we are given a history lesson, looking at what was going on politically in the U.S. under President Thomas Jefferson, what was happening with countries shipping their trade products here, and what was happening in Europe under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte and in Haiti under Toussaint Louventure, as he battled with Bonaparte and expected assistance from the U.S. which never came.

It comes to pass that the politics of the world around him have a huge effect on the life of this free man of color, which is altered very drastically. The play also shows how the Louisiana Purchase affected the free men of color in this country, and brings home the fact that when Thomas Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal, he was not referring to Black men, who at the time were the property of their slave owners. This point is something that is brutally brought home for Jacques.

This production, presented by Lincoln Center Theatre at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, presents history in a way that is amusing at times, but succeeds in vividly bringing home the point that negative things happened in the history of this country, by white people who simply were not concerned with the rights of Blacks.

The audience laughed often and for long periods of time, but also learned a lot of the historical events that occurred in the U.S. during that early 1800 period. The cast is absolutely magnificent. They capture your attention and hold it hostage, as they give you an unusual spin on history. Cast members include Jeffrey Wright as Jacques, Mos as Murmur and Toussaint Louverture, Joseph Marcell as Dr. Toubib--the story's narrator and a friend to Jacques, John McMartin as Thomas Jefferson and many other cast members who played multiple roles, but there are unfortunately too many to name. The director of this unique and creative production is the incomparable George C. Wolfe.

Go and learn about American History from a different point of view. Go see "A Free Man of Color."

For more information call 212-239-6200