"A Free Man of Color": A Wild Ride through the Early History of New Orleans

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former entertainment writer and critic for the New York Daily News.

A Free Man of Color
Vivian Beaumont Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, NY

Jacques Cornet was the free, mulatto son of a wealthy New Orleans plantation owner who made extra money by staging a weekly casino night in his large, lavish mansion.  When we first meet the very elegantly dressed Cornet, brocaded jacket, white silk stockings, white wig and all, in 1801, he is trying to buy maps, bed every woman he meets, fend off his half brother’s claim to his fortune, host parties, make friends and become the Delta’s “Man of the Year.”

His giddy, party-hearty life story is the central plot of playwright John Guare’s struggling historical drama, “A Free Man of Color,” that opened last week at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.  Through Cornet, Guare tells the story of how New Orleans bounced through control by the Spanish, French and Americans during just three years at the birth of the nineteenth century.  It tells the story, too, of the wealthy high society crowd that ran New Orleans’ cultural life in what was the most racially and ethnically diverse city in America.

The opening act of the drama is rather sluggish and seems to go nowhere. Cornet, at first seen as a very over-the-top character with his over-sized wig and rhyming speech, parades about town as at first the King of Spain, then Napoleon, and then Thomas Jefferson decide what to do with the vast Louisiana Territory and the booming New Orleans, an exploding city of 8,000 whose population will double in the next five years.

The play improves somewhat in the second act.  In an effort to expand his political power, Cornet decides to make each of half a dozen important men in New Orleans his heir and pretends to be dying.  The second act has more plot, better acting and a lot more history.

Guare, the author of Six Degrees of Separation and The House of Blue Leaves, has written a decent play, but a play that is hard to embrace.  You love Cornet and his friends, but sort of hope there is a flat boat nearby to get you down the Mississippi and out of New Orleans.

The play is a rich history lesson, though.  Guare studied numerous local histories of New Orleans and seventy-fifth-anniversary city publications he found in his great aunt’s trunk to write the drama.  The playwright also did considerable research on racial relations in 1801 and wove the early history of the Crescent City into the play.  The story ends with the U.S. buying Louisiana for just $15 million, doubling the size of the country.  In between, we learn much about the Napoleonic politics, the slave rebellion that toppled the government of Santo Domingo (now Haiti), the “enlightened” slave code of New Orleans in 1801, bordellos, the dangers of the Yellow Fever and the extravagant dress of men and women involved in a twenty-four-hour social whirl in a city that just discovered all-night parties and Mardi Gras.  We even get a marvelous plea for the end of slavery by Cornet to President Jefferson.

Guare did not do a complete job of explaining why the U.S. was so eager to buy Louisiana, though.  New Orleans did not become a very prosperous port because of the Spanish or French merchant fleets, but because of an ever-growing river boat business from U.S. merchants up and down the Mississippi, Missouri and the Ohio.  From 1797 to 1803, shipping from the Midwest to New Orleans tripled and the city handled nearly 70 percent of America’s flour.  By 1803, more than seven hundred boats docked there each year, loading and unloading millions of dollars worth of goods.  America wanted New Orleans because it was also the target of thousands of refugees, black and white, who arrived there in those years.  A reporter for the Western Gazette, in town a few years later, wrote that “here in New Orleans, in half an hour, you can see, and speak to, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Danes, Swedes, Germans, Englishmen, Portuguese, Hollanders, Mexicans, Kentuckians, Tennesseans, Ohioans, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, New Englanders and a motley group of Indians, Quadroons and Africans.”

The Spanish defended New Orleans with a navy of eleven boats, hired a regally- uniformed department of constables to preserve law and order and paid off local tribes of Native Americans not to attack the town.  Citizens had their own newspaper, an opera house, a theater, a canal to nearby Lake Pontchartrain and even a Roman Catholic bishop.

Guare might have added some history on the legendary, gorgeous Creole women of New Orleans, the descendants of the first French and Spanish residents.  William Claiborne, the first governor of Louisiana, was smitten by them, writing that they were “among the most handsome women in America.”  Union soldiers who visited New Orleans during the Civil War were stunned by their beauty.  Even Freddie Cannon sang of the “Creole Babies” in the “garden of Eden” in his rock and roll tune “Way down Yonder in New Orleans.”

Women and men, regardless of nationality and race, mixed easily in New Orleans, dancing together and drinking at the many taverns in the city.  New Orleans was also a painters’ and architects’ dream, a city of lavish homes, public squares and gardens.

Even without all of that, Guare’s play provides much history.

Jeffrey Wright as Cornet just dazzling, the real spark of an otherwise slow night, as he cavorts about the stage.  He is aided by his slave Murmur, played by the charming Mos, John McMartin as Thomas Jefferson, and Triney Sandoval as a very funny, exaggerated Napoleon.

Director George C. Wolfe’s work is unbalanced, with brilliant scenes such as Napoleon in his bathtub brought down by uneven scenes of a prancing Cornet and his friends on the streets of New Orleans.  The striking sets that depict the high rent district in New Orleans are by David Rockwell.  The lush period costumes, some of the best on Broadway this year, are by Ann Hould-Ward.  Lighting is by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer, sound by Scott Stauffer and choreography by Hope Clarke.

A Free Man of Color is a good history lesson but a play that needs bit more direction, zest and some good old-fashioned New Orleans verve.

Produced by Lincoln Center.  Stars:  Jeffrey Wright (Jacques Cornet), Mos (Murmur and Toussaint Louverture), Paul Dano (Meriwether Lewis), John McMartin (Thomas Jefferson), Nick Mennell (General LeClerc), Reg Rogers (Zeus-Marie Pincepousse, Jacques’ half brother), Triney Sandoval (Juan Morales and Napoleon), Robert Stanton (Lord Harcourt) and Veanne Cox (Dona Pollissena).

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