A Free Man of Color at Lincoln Center is closing very soon and it seems a shame. Yet, the play itself seems somewhat a shame as well. Written by John Guare and directed by George C. Wolfe, this production lingers and is lovely and in the end, falls flat. It is breathtakingly stage with an enormous cast of seasoned solid actors, but it is simply a flawed play.
Set in the very early 1800s, A Free Man of Color is in essence the story of the Louisiana Purchase. Interestingly enough, this narrative is not as dry as you would imagine. In fact, it is probably the most solid aspect of the work. Where the play falls flat is in the lack of dramatic tension and emotional connection. While the play is saturated in texture and tale, it left me emotionally cold. I was never pulled onto that stage, I was merely a spectator. Perhaps there were smaller issues at hand; the periodic (incongruous) rhyming, the smattering of sophomoric humor, and the genital storyline did feel self conscious to me. However, I doubt I would have noticed as much had I been rooting or caring for someone on that stage.
The empty emotional space is certainly not the fault of the actors. They are fabulous and include Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def (I know!) as the leads. I can’t even believe I am stating that Mr. Def was the most poignant portrayal of the evening. I briefly considered putting my arm around him and giving him a “there there.” His interpretation of his character (the slave) was tight, small and dead-on.
The use of the stage was awe inspiring. I’ve no doubt the Lincoln Center board blanched at the set design (David Rockwell) but it was money well spent. The appearance of a simple white screen in Act II evoked a gasp. The use of (very subtle) puppetry to depict slaves was stirring. Musicians on the stage worked splendidly and reminded a bit of Ruined. Quite simply, there was so much to love in this production. The play had been cut (and is now a formidable 2 1/2 hours) and workshopped, but not enough in my estimation. It is frustrating to sit in a theatre and watch intelligence and care unfold, and know that it really should close. Adding to my sadness is that I have no doubt that the hundreds of empty seats would have been filled if the cast was comprised of movie or talent show stars.