Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Free Man of Color

Have you ever really wanted to like a play even though you could tell it sucks from the first two minutes? Have you ever pondered why sometimes the conjunction of a bunch of very talented people spells disaster? If you haven't and you'd like to know how it feels like, by all means check out this terrible play by John Guare, directed even more awfully by George C. Wolfe. It reminded me of the school plays we used to stage about the life of Benito Juarez when I was in second grade. A bunch of people standing on a stage declaiming at the audience for an interminable almost three hours. A didactic, expository, undramatic account of what could have been an interesting character living in interesting times. The play is almost like a pantomime, and with less frantic direction perhaps it could have been salvaged into a wanly witty but funnier, more moving play. But Wolfe has instructed all his actors to scream and ham it up and desperately reach to be funny. If you try too hard to be funny, you are anything but. They are so terrible, my throat was aching from all their screaming. It is painful to watch Jeffrey Wright make a caricature of a character who could have been charming and poignant. The only person who behaves with any dignity is Mos, formerly known as Mos Def. He is the only one who refuses to overact. The garish sets are by Interior decorator David Rockwell, the magnificent costumes (I predict Tony) are by Anne Hough and the lavish production seems to knowingly overcompensate for a static play that were it not for its trite sexual humor, would be great to stage at elementary schools all over the country. The idea is worthy: at the beginning of the 19th century in New Orleans, there was less segregation than later on. Discuss.
Since this play is about race, I will say that I never understood if the generalized stereotyping and caricature (black men have huge dicks and are great lovers, people who speak Spanish lisp and talk ridiculously, the French are fops) are meant to be ironic. If that was the intention, it was lost on me. I will go further. If I were black, this play would piss me off. Why do we need a history lesson? Why can't we have a black character, fully fleshed out, through which we can experience his experience as a free man of color? The same happened to me with Fela! Why the school pageant? Why so much exposition? Don't these extraordinary characters deserve a real drama?
I'm afraid A Free Man Of Color is the result of noble but artistically useless intentions. We should see more plays about race. Unfortunately, this one feels like we are witnessing the playwright's research. He did his historical homework, and he turned it into vaudeville.
George C. Wolfe spills a barrel of tricks on the stage to try to disguise the fact that the play is like reading about the Louisiana Purchase in wikipedia, but a lot less fun. However, there is not one coup de theatre, not one heart stopping moment in the entire evening, despite the steady parade of prancing and scenery changes. I remember seeing his original Angels in America in the early nineties. Then it seemed like a visually bracing production (of a much better play). Here we are almost 20 years later, and he's kind of doing the same old shtick.
I saw La Bete this week too, and it's not a great play but the set makes you gasp and there is a beautiful moment when the princess makes her entrance that is a simple effect of light and gold dust, but it works wonders. La Bete at least is very funny, although rambling, and the actors, Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce and Joanna Lumley (the magnificent Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous) know how to use their instruments. They perform in iambic pentameter with nimble and delightful musicality. Sitting through A Free Man of Color is like listening to someone scratching a blackboard with their fingernails: an aggressive assault on the ears.
This drives me crazy about many American actors. Whatever happened to voice training? Why do they sound like a screeching brake?
If this play doesn't bomb, I'll be very surprised. The applause was tired and polite. The couple next to us sensibly absconded during intermission. I considered it but wanted to see if it improved. It actually gets worse.
I'm almost looking forward to reading the reviews and see if the critics will have the balls, despite the subject matter and the sacred cows, to call out the groaner that it is. BlogBooster-The most productive way for mobile blogging. BlogBooster is a multi-service blog editor for iPhone, Android, WebOs and your desktop


  1. I'm seeing it in November on one of my marathon theatergoing trips to New York. I got the ticket a couple of months ago, just based on the cast and the subject sounded interesting, like a sprawling historical epic.

    I've read a little bit about New Orleans before the Louisiana Purchase and it was an interesting time. Kind of dreading it now from the buzz but trying to keep an open mind.

    I'm also seeing La Bete, which I'm excited about, too.

  2. yeuch - my friend robert stanton's in this. looking at the size of the cast, this must have cost the lincoln center MILLIONS. but i can see why they put it on: established playwright writing about race - the theater establishment's wet dream.


  3. Millions is right. Esther, my only succor was Mos and the costumes. Damian, you've hit the nail on the head. It's some sort of well-meaning p.c. nightmare. I really felt for the actors. It's not their fault.

  4. Anonymous9:13 AM

    I saw the play on saturday. I went in expecting a serious drama and expected different style of acting but I enjoyed it for what a was a farce, a satire. I still thought the cast was great. Unlike you, I was touched at certain moments. I can understand why you didn't like it though.