The Last Uncharted Territory—an Evening with John Guare

“American history,” I recently heard George C. Wolfe, director of John Guare’s latest play A Free Man of Color, say, “is not a well-made play.”  Last Monday before an enthusiastic audience at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center John Guare continued this thought in a free flowing dialogue with David Savran about his play, the poetry of theatre, racial stereotypes, and what it means to be American.

Directed by Wolfe at The Vivien Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center with all the visual excess Guare had wished for, A Free Man of Color employs the sexy, anything goes model of Restoration comedy to engage in an exploration, deconstruction, reassessment, and much more of the American dream.  Rich with references from the Country Wife to Barbara Bush (think Hurricane Katrina) A Free Man of Color tells of the life and times of former slave turned slave owner Jacques Cornet, played by the always exciting Jeffrey Wright, for whom Guare wrote the play.  Aided by his clever slave Murmur (in a nuanced performance by mos aka rapper Mos Def), fop Cornet indulges in fine clothes, maps, and women.  Lots of women.  Cornet is so hot; it only takes his signature whistle for the ladies of the town to drop on the nearest canapé.  The town is, of course, New Orleans, because where else in the US around 1800 could a black man celebrate his magic endowment?  What poetic truth that Cornet is such a libertine—after all the term originally meant “a man freed from slavery,” as David Savran discovered to his and Guare’s astonishment.

How my Father sold my Mother

Brocade purchased with the enormous inheritance from his white father may have given Cornet confidence, but it doesn’t protect him from the tidal waves of history.  After the Louisiana purchase the racial mosaic of New Orleans is forced into a brutal division of black and white, and Cornet ends up on a plantation; an ending that David Savran called “a nasty, sad surprise.”  A Free Man of Color, so Guare, is a play about narrative.  Cornet is seduced by the illusion of writing his own play, but history simply kicks him out of the narrative and into the mystical white spaces that symbolize American ideals of freedom and their flipside: living in chance—the ultimate uncharted territory.  Tragic that Cornet’s hope “all men are created equal” was one of Jefferson’s sharp statements that didn’t find their way into the constitution.  By the way, a Jefferson whom Guare depicts to this audience’s puzzled delight as a pragmatic comfort creature with a sweet tooth rather than as an intellectual heavy weight.

How One Man Became an American

In response to questions about his writing process Guare talked about exhilarating research that led him to findings such as Napoleon’s confinement to a bathtub to alleviate his skin disease and the Code Noir, that mind numbing, insane set of laws prohibiting blacks from everything but labor.  Cornet reciting it with a mix of terror and amazement and Guare talking about it make two memorable moments in my personal theatre history.  I found myself equally fascinated with the roles of trickster slave Murmur and Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture (also played by mos), two men who fight for freedom with literally all they have.  Toussaint dies a miserable death in France, Murmur sells Cornet to gain his own freedom.  Easy to admire upright, courageous Toussaint, but Murmur?  His actions are human, all too human, those tragic decisions people make when oppression pushes them into an ethical cul de sac.  The “humanity of America,” said Guare, “is the nightmare of America.”  Mos’ diminished, guilty look on his final line “now I am a Free Man of Color, and I find that very nice,” came back to mind as I listened to the irreplaceable voice of John Guare alerting us to the high price of freedom.

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