Ah, the thea-tah, as synonymous with New York as the Empire State Building. I didn’t feel the glare of the bright lights of Broadway, however. I headed to Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont, to see Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def in A Free Man of Color.
Set in the decadent pre-Louisiana Purchase New Orleans, Jeffrey Wright plays Jacques Cornet, a lothario who has his way with the women and wields incredible influence over the men. Then Thomas Jefferson sends James Monroe and Robert R. Livingston to Paris on a shopping expedition, and all kinds of 1800s hell breaks loose.
The first act started out with a blast of colour, costumery and set changes that had me consistently wondering, “How did they do that?!” As for the performances, I wasn’t expecting such a swashbuckling-Keith-Richardsian-Johnny-Depp-in-Pirates-of-the-Caribbean feel; and that may seem like a strange description, since Jacques Cornet’s opulent world was miles from the dirty, bootlegging pirate world, but I guess it was the exaggeration that took me by surprise. But it worked. All of that braided gold, cerulean blue, and regal purple that pomped-and-circumstanced across the stage in one florid outfit and prop after another wouldn’t have meshed. Both the acting and the presentation had to be decadent.
The second act proved more tricky. All the deep racial issues and realities we were spared watching Jeffrey Wright seduce anything in a dress came barrelling stage front and centre. Mos Def, who plays Jacques Cornet’s slave, betrays Cornet for his freedom, Toussaint L’Overture makes an appearance and dies in prison, and Cornet is abandoned by the men formerly in his debt and becomes a slave under new American rule. No more foie gras, no more grapes, no more plush four poster beds in which to ravage woman after woman.
Amid all the drinking and debauchery, Veanne Cox‘s turn as Doña Polissena, a skittish, sex-deprived scientist trying to learn about the causes and cures of yellow fever was a highlight. How her stiff, tightly-buttoned foreignness quakes and crumbles beneath Cornet’s touch is memorably witty.
So, A Free Man of Color may not deal with the whole picture of the Louisiana Purchase as gravely as other productions, but the turn from frolicking rowdiness to kneeling, enslaved and broken makes the end result that much more upsetting.
A Free Man of Color
Playing now though January 9
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont