Saturday, November 27, 2010

‘A Free Man of Color,’ ‘Banished Children of Eve’

Jeffrey Wright, above, as the larger-than-life Jacques Cornet in “A Free Man of Color.” Photo by T. Charles Erickson.


theme is America’s racial history at different points in the national timeline. One play is a raucous spectacle with a cast of 32 and a strong sense of theatrical traditions. The other is rather grim and slightly amateurish despite a seasoned and sometimes exceptional cast.

John Guare covers a lot of territory in "A Free Man of Color" at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Theater through 9 Jan. Under the play’s title in the playbill, "Professor" Guare credits a long list of influences, from the Greeks to the Restoration.

Much of this could alienate and antagonize his audience:
· There's the callow titular character, ably portrayed as foppish, egocentric, conceited and annoying by Jeffrey Wright;
· The frenetic history lesson that travels continents;
· One can't ignore the fact that the central character is a black man with huge sexual appetites and exceptional prowess.

The latter in particular has the power to offend even if there is no intention to do so.

Further, there are numerous characters who are merely representatives – many paper cutouts rather than fleshed-out personalities. For instance, the veteran John McMartin's Thomas Jefferson is a stock figure of a man content with the borders as they are. His secretary, Meriwether Lewis, eager to explore unknown territories beyond the existing 16 states, is animated by the fine Paul Dano. Take a bow: you recognized his destiny as part of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. It will occur before the end of our saga, which begins in New Orleans of 1801.

Jeffrey Wright seated, center, with cast, including Mos third from left second row, in “A Free Man of Color.” Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, New Orleans was a free-wheeling city whose denizens were often defined, but not hampered, by race. JG has each of the city’s citizens in “A Free Man of Color” introduce himself by his entire racial makeup.

JW's "free man," Jacques Cornet, has a slave, Cupidon Murmur, he inherited along with his wealth from his white father. Mos aka Mos Def portrays with equal finesse Murmur's yearning to purchase his own freedom, his admiration and disdain for Jacques Cornet, as well as the liberator of Haiti, Toussaint Louverture.

Jacques Cornet's half-brother, Zeus-Marie Pinceposse, a smarmy Reg Rogers, pride-fully proclaims himself to be 100 percent white. He is in a mock marriage to a black girl, his "Margaret" aka Margery Jolicouer, played by Nicole Beharie as a giggly, wily country girl. He is tormented by jealousy of her and of his brother's riches.

Triney Sandoval's Napoleon Bonaparte stands out in a cast of 26 who portray 37 historical figures. Also excellent is Justina Machado as Doña Smeralda, one of the wives our hero seduces.

The story has an erudition and a cynical modern sensibility. The staging is entertaining and stirs the intricate plot at a fast pace thanks to the deft direction of George C. Wolfe. Hope Clarke choreographs swordplay that even on the Beaumont's expansive stage threatens to spill out over the audience. The exquisite costumes by Ann Hould-Ward are colorful and imaginative.

Set years later in New York City is “Banished Children of Eve.” Kelly Younger's world premiere at The Irish Repertory Theatre until 5 Dec. is based on a novel by Peter Quinn.

Christopher Borger as Squirt, Amber Gray as Eliza, David Lansbury as Jack Mulcahey, and Malcolm Gets as Stephen Collins Foster in "Banished Children of Eve." Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The background and history that inform this story – the Draft Riots that lasted from 13 to 17 July 1863 and the ethnic tensions they brought to the fore – are more interesting by far than this little melodrama. The working classes, particularly the Irish, were under the impression that while they were being conscripted to fight the Confederacy, newly freed blacks would get their jobs. The resulting riots were both bloody and brutal.

Nonetheless “Banished Children of Eve” does have something to recommend it.

The cleverly designed circular set by Charlie Corcoran is busy with the industry of an 1863 New York City street. Here a cobbler polishing a shoe; there fishmonger Euphemia Blanchard (the shrill Patrice Johnson) offering “creatures of the deep,” and a theatre owner Mr. Miller (Kern McFadden) hawking his latest minstrel show.

It’s a small stage so the scale of activity and the details of the set are impressive.

Like All Good, ‘In the Heights’ Is Coming to an End
From the “sad to see it go” department: The 2008 Tony-winning musical “In the Heights” closes on 9 Jan. Lin Manuel Miranda’s rap about the gentrification of a neighborhood is lyrical, romantic, funny, nostalgic and wise. This reviewer saw it three times and will miss having it around for another peek into the lives Miranda brilliantly created.

Visit to learn more about “A Free Man of Color,” and to learn more about “Banished Children of Eve.”

Tamara Beck is President, Clean Lists Associates, Inc, an association management firm. And an avid theater-goer.

1 comment :

  1. The Cell Theatre ( is offering a musical called HARD TIMES this Jan. 2014 which is based in the same story as "Banished ...." Hard Times (written by Larry Kirwan of Black 47, directed by Kira Simring and produced by the cell) is an exhilarating interplay of African-American and Irish dance. Set against a backdrop of NYC draft riots during the Civil War, the cast ebulliently taps away while sweeping the dust off the wonderful songs of Stephen Foster.


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