The inoperative word for A Free Man of Color is "free." With a cast of 26 (32 with understudies) and a sprawling, period-piece story to tell, it's anything but free. Billed by Lincoln Center Theater as a "comedy of grand scale," the show has been seven years in the making, finally arriving in October at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. It spills across the space last used by South Pacific — an expanse used to comfortably accommodating multitudes (44 actors for The Coast of Utopia, 49 for Abe Lincoln in Illinois and 33 for Henry IV).
Director George C. Wolfe envisioned this big picture toward the tail end of his reign as kingpin of the Public Theater (1993–2004), commemorating that theatre's golden anniversary by commissioning plays from writers who had worked there before. "I'd always wanted to do a Restoration play set in the New World — in America during its infancy — so I talked to John Guare about it," Wolfe recalls. "He went off, did all this research and brought in something so joyful, so John Guarean.
"It's a fictional account inside a factual world. Fundamentally, it's the story of Jacques Cornet, who's kind of a Don Juan figure — a master seducer and the richest man in New Orleans. He also happens to be a free man of color — which was a separate class that existed then. There were Creoles, who were anybody born in the New World; there were Creoles of color, who were children of sexual and emotional liaisons among French and Spanish people and slaves; and then there were slaves."
These worlds collide dramatically in early-19th-century New Orleans. "I was interested in what happens when you impose one structure on top of another — here, an American structure on top of a French-Spanish one. Spain, which controlled New Orleans, starts to sell it to France, then the United States gets involved and ends up buying the Louisiana Purchase. It's what happens to one man when every single thing in his world changes. Jacques Cornet is really Jack Horner in The Country Wife, one of those Restoration plays I wanted to do. So it's real figures meeting created figures meeting Restoration figures — like Ragtime with britches, breasts and sex." Jeffrey Wright, whom Wolfe directed to a Tony for Angels in America, is the Don Juan in question, immersed in handpicked worthies like John McMartin, Veanne Cox, Paul Dano, Arnie Burton, Robert Stanton, Reg Rogers and Mos [formerly known as Mos Def].
"In terms of a vision about this country, it's the most ambitious thing I've worked on since Angels," Wolfe says. "Sections are in verse. Sections are like a sex romp or a historical pageant. It's such a celebration of theatre — just the devices and the multiple casting. One actor walks out as one character and walks back seconds later as somebody totally different. Just like Angels, it has an unapologetic love of theatricality."