One of the biggest challenges for modern people trying to understand history is to conceive of the past beyond stereotypes. When we use Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of Civil Rights resistance, we must also consider the troops of housecleaners, preachers, construction workers, teachers and others earlier in the 20th century whose unyielding efforts made the movement work. In the 19th century, when we lionize Harriet Tubman and the brave people she brought to freedom, we must also cherish the imperfect people who did not escape. They are our Southern ancestors. And when we think of pre-Civil War America, we can't simply conceive of black slavery and white masters -" especially in New Orleans. We must consider the people of color who were both owners and, at various times and in various ways, enslaved.
That is the clear intention of the production, A Free Man of Color, by playwright John Guare and director George C. Wolfe Jr, which has just opened at New York's Lincoln Center. It is a complex and intimate play, attempting to encompass the sweep of history from French colonial New Orleans to just after the Louisiana Purchase, including the influence of Spain, the United States and San Domingue (Haiti) on the sale.
Following the French and American revolutions, the revolution in Haiti created such economic and political drains on France that it was anxious to sell the unwieldy Louisiana territory to the United States in 1803. A Free Man of Color begins in 1801 during the change-over from the colonial to the so-called democratic government. The core of A Free Man of Color is the effect of all these politics and economic ambitions on an individual, Jacques Cornet.
Beautifully played by Broadway actor Jefferey Wright, Cornet is an 18th century dandy who prances and womanizes, poses in powdered wigs and satin pants, and cares nothing at all that he is attended to by the whites, Spanish and French characters who make up the 32-member cast only because his wealth puts him in charge. This also makes Cornet a stereotype. He is an extreme bon vivant, a whoremonger of women of every shape and color, too blissfully nonchalant to his white-half brother, the Spanish ambassador, the smelly frontiersmen and the immigrants to New Orleans. All of this has a ring of truth, but wrapped up together, it is reality on steroids.
While parody is not bad, it can sometimes be dangerous. In this case, the tan-skinned Cornet's colored counterparts are either brown-skinned, intelligent and humble, or brown-skinned, sly and enslaved. There are many opportunities to interpret these characters as the play's pitfalls -" as they reach deep into the stereotypes of race, color and class.
But because A Free Man of Color begins as a comedy of manners -" highlighting the 17th century style of French drama which relies on clear cut villains and heroes, who make private asides to the audiences -" it is bound by stereotypes. Think MoliÃ¨re's Tartuffe and you'll recognize the type of theater via stereotypes that can limit the playwright.
Still, the efforts of Guare and director Wolfe to go further are tangible. There is constant dialogue about the political situation, racist laws and willing miscegenation. And the wigs fall off later in the play and the scenery takes on a modernist feel when the Free Man's fortunes begin to decline. At the end, Coronet recognizes that he has lived frivolously and he gets a tragic comeuppance.
The tragedy of Louisiana's joining the United States becomes apparent too. New York playgoers see the downfall of the free people of color as clearly as anyone who has lived in the 7th ward or talked to anyone from New Orleans or rural Louisiana whose families went back to before "les Americains" arrived. They will tell you that the next 200 plus years were an uphill battle.
That brings us to today.
History for Today's Audiences
The fact that the outside world has seen beyond Katrina to that tragedy's historical beginnings is somewhat revelatory. How many people besides us knew that what we saw in the days after the storm was the result of a 200-year struggle being invisible? It's good to know that the consciences of people away from New Orleans are still grappling with the consequences of bad choices made by the U.S. government, when the federal leadership bungled and tripped and then fell on us.
Perhaps people can now understand the place of our culture and environment in that long sweep of history - a series of political and racial splatters and missteps as far as we were concerned. Our local response was to do what we do in the gayest way possible -- which may at first seem funny and outrageous to outsiders, but which, to us, has defined our being outside and within America. Our over-the-top culture has provided the means to survive the vagaries and prejudices of government from the colonial era through the U.S. Constitution which said people were equal and should be treated as such -" everybody but us, of course.
The play A Free Man of Color addresses this inequality in America. But our New Orleans community has had a front row seat to this drama for centuries. One of the earliest written documents by free men of color is their 1804 letter to the American governor:
"We are Natives of this Province and our dearest Interests are connected with its welfare"We therefore feel a lively Joy that the Sovereignty of the Country is at length united with that of the American Republic. We are duly sensible that our personal and political freedom is thereby assured to us for ever, and we are also impressed with the full-est confidence in the Justice and Liberality of the Government towards every Class of Citizens which they have taken under their Protection."
They were asking to keep all the rights given to them by the French colonial government. Their rights were not upheld by the Americans. Moreover, the mayor wrote in private correspondence, "Our militia will never be worth much while our numbers are so few and scattered over such an extensive country. They are moreover mingled with those very Negroes and free people of color whom we must necessarily always consider in a country where slavery exists to the extent it does here as political enemies."
The U.S. government worried about revolution in Louisiana because of San Domingue but also because the people of African descent in New Orleans made up about two-thirds of the population, and 45 percent of them were free for the first four decades of the 19th century. This period included New Orleans' 1803 entry into the United States and rise to one of the biggest and most important urban centers in the nation.