The recent staging of the sprawling and irreverent A Free Man of Color by the Department of Dance, Drama and Film brought a restoration-style comedy to Bolton Theater.
Written in 2010 by Tony Award-winning playwright John Guare, the play is set in the bohemian melting pot of New Orleans. The action follows two threads. One charts the adventures of the former slave Jacques Cornet, the city’s wealthiest man. The other, meanwhile, focuses on political maneuverings and wars around the world that lead to a pivotal moment: the Louisiana Purchase, which re-introduced slavery into New Orleans and upended Cornet’s luxurious lifestyle.
“The play speaks to a lot of the issues that we’re still seeing addressed in contemporary America,” said director Jon Tazewell ’84 P’15, Thomas S. Turgeon Professor of Drama and Film. “It was written post-Katrina, and Katrina was another moment in our fairly recent American history where a microscope was put on the way in which America deals with race and class.”
Thanks to the restoration style, a veneer of ribaldry coats this seriousness. As assistant director Amy Sheahan ’17, an English and drama double major from Arlington, Virginia, put it, “It’s a sex romp with fancy clothing.” A major source of the lewdness is Cornet’s tireless pursuit of the town’s wives. “I try to think: How could I be a Renaissance playboy in the year 1801?” said Jibri McLean ’17, a political science major from Baltimore, who played the libertine.
Despite his past, Cornet owns a slave, Cupidon Murmur. According to Jules Desroches ’18, an American studies major from Rockville, Maryland who plays Murmur, this reversal “allows people today to grapple with America’s racial history in a real way. It’s not, ‘Slavery was a thing that happened in the past and now we don’t do it and racism is over.’”
Past and present merge when characters directly address the audience about contemporary issues. Toward the end of play, for example, Cornet discusses the Declaration of Independence with President Thomas Jefferson. “I’m explaining to Jefferson, ‘You’ll avoid this, you’ll avoid that,’” McLean said, referring to current racial problems in the United States. To avoid these, “I tell him to make his words real.”
Tackling weighty topics isn’t easy, but it is a key motivator for McLean. “I was glad I joined the play because I was part of a bigger message,” he said.
Tazewell embraced the challenge. “Any time you go into a play, especially one that is this complicated and sizable and dense, you’re a little fearful,” he said. “But that’s actually one of the things that I look for in a play. If I’m not at least a little bit frightened about it, then it’s too easy. And I think it’s the challenge that we’re all in it for.”
– Timmy Broderick ’16