Swine Palace’s production of “A Free Man of Color,” continuing at LSU’s Claude L. Shaver Theatre on Dalrymple Drive, follows James Bond’s admonition for making the perfect martini.
With 23 cast members playing almost twice that many roles in a play three hours long, you might expect to stumble into the night shaken, but stirred’s more like it.
Playwright John Guare’s hero, Jacques Cornet, played ably by Alvin Keith, is a wealthy New Orleanian born of a white father and black slave mother. The play opens in New Orleans before the Louisiana Purchase when a free man of color such as Cornet was free to live as he chose which in Cornet’s case includes seducing the wives of white peers and owning slaves himself.
It would be fun to listen to the audience at intermission in, say, Milwaukee.
Keith, as Cornet, goes from master of his exotic 19th century world to a man of color not so free after the Louisiana Purchase in the administration of Thomas Jefferson. Keith handles the transition with aplomb.
Donald Watkins provides a nice foil as Cupidon Murmur, Cornet’s manservant, slave and extricator of his boss from messes the raffish Cornet stirs up. Watkins is funny with a stage presence he didn’t learn in drama class.
If Tony awards were handed out on the basis of characters’ names, “A Free Man of Color” would have landed a barge load. Drew Battles plays French diplomat Talleyrand but also Cornet’s white half brother, Zeus-Marie Pincepousse.
Clearly, Guare had something in mind to say about black people in the South when he wrote “A Free Man of Color.” We watch a story of different classes of black — and white — New Orleanians take a cultural journey from 1801 to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What happened to poor black residents of New Orleans in Katrina is tacked on at the end.
The play is really the old story of be nice to people on your way up so there won’t be so many ready to kick you on the way down.
Standouts in this large cast include Nic Hamel as Napoleon Bonaparte and the commandant of the Port of New Orleans, Oneal Isaac as narrator Dr. Toubib, George Judy as Thomas Jefferson, Jenny Ballard, Jessica Jain and Renaldo McClinton.
Ken George’s set is a triumph of art and technology. The architecture of George’s design is a reminder of the different cultures that make old New Orleans look the way it does.
Corey Globke’s costumes are beautiful and built for speed. Paul Russell directs.
In some ways, “A Freeman of Color” is like the city it seeks to portray, rowdy and lovely, a city of economic and human extremes, but it ends up a poor caricature of New Orleans. The story is more Pollock than Degas.
Don’t be tempted to bring children to the show, hoping they’ll learn some history. Language, simulated sex and a brief glimpse of Napoleon’s rear end would make for an interesting drive home.
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