Thomas Jefferson shows up near the end of “A Free Man of Color.” He really takes it on the chin from a humiliated mulatto named Jacques Cornet.
The hero of John Guare’s fever dream of a play has tumbled from the height of New Orleans society to slave-auction chattel when he summons the third U.S. president. Jefferson has just purchased the Louisiana Territory from the French; slavery is suddenly the law of the annexed land.
Cornet, portrayed with ineffable poignance by Jeffrey Wright, implores the author of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...” to make those words true while he has the chance. Jefferson, played with muddled resignation by John McMartin, is sympathetic but recalcitrant.
“Unfortunately, those words are not part of the Constitution,” he tells the shattered Cornet, defending a global market so hungry for American product that slave labor alone can fill the maw.
It’s 1801 when the play opens and Cornet, the “free man of color,” has inherited and improved his father’s fortune, infuriating his white half-brother. New Orleans, as one of Cornet’s multi-hued cronies boasts, is “the free-est city in the world,” where “race is a celebration!”
Cornet first steps into view a bewigged fop in blue and red silk with gold brocade (providing a field day for costumer Ann Hould-Ward). The city’s pre-eminent fixer, banker, whore hogger and wife debaucher, he lords it over the preening sycophants crowding his private gambling salon.
His partner in decadence is his valet, a slave named Murmur played with infectious pathos by Mos, the rap singer formerly known as Mos Def.
Cornet’s father was a white plantation owner, his mother a slave sold shortly after his birth. He has a reversal of fortune worthy of Dickens, but unlike that of Nicholas Nickleby, Cornet’s story begins as a Restoration comedy of manners and concludes in a tragedy extending forward all the way to Hurricane Katrina.
That suggests an enormous canvas, and “A Free Man of Color” is indeed the biggest work to date from the author of “Six Degrees of Separation” and “The House of Blue Leaves.”
A sprawling, frequently messy play, it jolts from stylized comedy to satire to funereal dirge with little regard for the discomfort of a bumpy ride. The first act is rife with showy authorial conceits (and unrelenting priapism that would make Don Juan blush) that nearly sink the enterprise.
George C. Wolfe
Lucky for Guare, then, that director George C. Wolfe has convened an astonishing creative team and an equally gifted ensemble (26 actors!). Designer David Rockwell and lighting masters Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer make the Vivian Beaumont Theater feel intimate, with sets that are at once minimalist and lavish. Adding to the semiclassical atmosphere is Jeanine Tesori’s insinuating incidental music, with its quotes from Haydn and other composers.
Scenes shift swiftly from a European-style theater to a ship teeming with a cargo of sick black deportees from Haiti. In Act II we’re in the wide-open West, where Meriwether Lewis searches in vain for a waterway linking the Mississippi to the Pacific. Along the way he will encounter Cornet, himself a collector of maps obsessed with trying to comprehend the shape of a shape-shifting nation.
Chief among a host of fine supporting performances are those by Veanne Cox as a skittery married scientist smitten by Jacques, Paul Dano as the wanderlust-filled Lewis and Nicole Beharie as the brother’s wife, also cast under Cornet’s spell.
“I have a talent for alchemy,” Jacques says, pleading his case to a Jefferson deaf to his warning about the ruinous impact of slavery on the country they both love. Guare, a poet of our history, also has that talent. If “A Free Man of Color” is not 24-karat gold, it glitters nonetheless.
Through Jan. 9 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.lct.org. Rating: ***
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(Jeremy Gerard is a theater critic and editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)