Swine Palace presenting regional premiere of New Orleans-based play
Alvin Keith stood in front of Acadian Hall, sword in hand, careful not to allow the never-ending Highland Road traffic to break his pose.
It’s not often that passersby see a group this retro on a Friday afternoon. Really retro — 1803 retro, with satin and feathers and, well, swords.
Horns honked, drivers shouted from open windows. It was different, and it was probably some of the best unintended advertising Swine Palace can generate for its upcoming production of John Guare’s play, A Free Man of Color.
That is, if anyone bothered to stop and ask Keith why he was standing beneath LSU’s live oaks dressed in purple knee pants and a gold satin vest on a hot September afternoon. And some people did.
“It’s for the play A Free Man of Color,” Keith told one passerby. “We’re doing it at the Shaver Theatre.”
That will be on Friday, Sept. 25, when the play opens in the Claude L. Shaver Theatre in the LSU Music and Dramatic Arts Building. The production will mark only the second time the play has been staged, and it will also be the first time the play has been performed outside of New York.
The first production premiered on Nov. 18, 2010, in Broadway’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre.
Swine Palace is staging the play not only as the season opener of its 21st season but as its celebration of the Louisiana Bicentennial.
“A Free Man of Color is a perfect match for the opening of our celebratory Louisiana Bicentennial season, and Swine Palace is the perfect theater company to produce the regional premiere of this play, which is so distinctly about the history of not only New Orleans, but the effect the Louisiana Purchase had on the developing culture of our state and our country,” said Kristin Sosnowsky, Swine Palace’s managing director and chair of the LSU Department of Theatre.
But for now, Keith posed as Jacques Cornet in front of LSU’s Acadian Hall while LSU Department of Theatre staff members snapped photos.
Yes, this was a photo session in a place that appears authentic to the setting of Guare’s story. The time is 1803, and Napoleon is about to sell the Louisiana territory to the United States.
And Jacques Cornet’s life will completely change within the few seconds it takes for signatures to be scrawled on that document known as the Louisiana Purchase.
Jacques is the main character of this story, the free man of color whose heritage is part colonial European and part Caribbean slave. The white blood from his wealthy planter father entitles Jacques to freedom and the same rights as white men.
Jacques is an entrepreneur. He has money and owns a mansion. He’s also seen as a modern-day Don Juan who not only loves women but makes a habit of seducing wives in New Orleans’ high society.
That’s where the play is set, New Orleans, which had a large population of free people of color. These people of mixed blood and heritage were considered a third race in Louisiana before the Civil War. They owned businesses; they even owned slaves.
But things changed after the war, with the United States classifying all the free people not as a separate race but as black.
Lots of stories written about the free people, or “les gens de couleur libres,” as they were known in Louisiana’s Creole society, are set in that time between the Louisiana Purchase and the end of the Civil War.
This was a time when this population freely mingled in white society yet didn’t have all the rights enjoyed by whites. Guare steps back further into time to present a picture of a society that was even freer for the people of color.
“This is set before 1803, when Spain still owned Louisiana,” Paul Russell said.
Russell traveled from New York to Baton Rouge to direct this production, as he did last year to teach a master class for students in the Department of Theatre’s Master of Fine Arts program.
George Judy is director of that program. He also is Swine Palace’s artistic director and will be playing Thomas Jefferson in A Free Man of Color.
“George invited me to come down and give the master class, and on the way back to the airport, he asked if I’d like to come back and direct a Swine Palace production,” Russell said. “It took me by surprise. I told him that I would be happy to do it. And now, here I am.”
Russell is a casting director and author of Acting: Make It Your Business — How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. His 30 years of experience in entertainment includes work in film, television and on Broadway, and he is a faculty member in the New York University-Tisch theater arts program at The Atlantic Theatre Company.
He was an audience member during one of the performances of A Free Man of Color when it was produced in New York, and it seems only natural for the play to be staged at LSU.
“Swine Palace pursued this production, as it is a natural complement to our season,” Sosnowsky said.
“And in planning for the show, we hosted John Guare and Paul Russell in the spring to audition and artistically design for the upcoming production.”
Maybe “home” is an appropriate word to use here, because the story is being played out where it would have happened. Louisiana isn’t just a fictional place in a story. And though Jacques is a fictional character, the free people of color were real. Their descendants still live in the state, mostly in New Orleans and in the settlement known as Isle Brevelle that stretches along the Cane River between Cloutierville and Natchitoches.
“And before 1803, they were really free,” Russell said. “They enjoyed all the rights as white people. But that all changed when America bought Louisiana in 1803.”
Though the free people were still free, slavery was alive and well in America. The free people of color’s identity was still recognized in Louisiana, but emphasis was placed on their black blood in America.
Rights were either taken away or limited. This story looks at Jacques Cornet’s world before law and order took hold, before class, racial and political lines were drawn; and when New Orleans was still a parade of beautiful women and good-looking men, flowing wine and pleasure for the taking.
“He’s a man who loves language and life,” Keith said. “And he believes that he’ll surely have a high ranking in this new world.”
This new world called the United States of America.
“A lot of people may think from the subject, alone, that this play will be heavy, but it’s not,” Russell said. “The entire first act will keep the audience laughing,”
“It’s hilarious,” Keith added. “It’s restoration comedy.”
Restoration comedies are English comedies written and performed in the Restoration period from 1660 to 1710. It also is used as a synonym for Comedy of Manners, which satirizes the manners and affectations of a social class.
Probably the French playwright Moliere is best-known for this genre with his play Tartuffe, a role Keith performed with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival while working on his master’s degree.
“When I read this role, I said, ‘Finally, a Restoration comedy where I can be black,’” Keith said, laughing. “Jacques is dynamic and charismatic. And he’s black.”
Keith is a Houston native who lives in New York. Russell decided to cast the lead role in New York, and Keith was the first to audition.
“I think I was fortunate to be the first to audition, because I formed an idea about the role ahead of time,” Keith said. “I came to it with an understanding, and I set the precedent.”
And now he stood in front of Acadian Hall in knee pants, posing for photographs in scenes to be played out in the Shaver Theatre. Scenes that promise elaborate sets that journey through New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and the Caribbean. And these sets will accommodate a cast of 32 with each member wearing period costumes, such as the one Keith was wearing. And it is no coincidence that it was designed in purple and gold.
Costume designer Ken White explained to Keith that the play will open during LSU’s football season. Purple and gold is the regular fashion fare on campus, especially at this time of year.
“He said the audience would go crazy if I wore purple and gold in this first act,” Keith said.
“So, here I am.”
And here is this story, complete with laughter, drama and action. That’s where the swords come in, the swords with which Keith and his fellow cast members posed.
The costumes captured drivers’ eyes, but the crossed swords reeled them in.
Their curiosity was piqued, and some walking by stopped and asked, “What, where and when?”
A Free Man of Color answered the “what,” the Shaver Theatre answers, “where,”
And though Sept. 25 technically answers “when,” the years leading up to 1803 is the real answer to that question.
When Jacques Cornet was free.
- CAST: Alvin Keith, Jacques Cornet; Donald Watkins, Cupidon Murmur; Oneal A. Isaac, Dr. Toubib; George Judy, Thomas Jefferson; Benjamin T. Koucherik, Meriweather Lewis; Jessica Jain, Margery Jolicoeur; Kristina Sutton, Dona Polissena; Renaldo C. McClinton, Touissant Louverture/Alcibade; Nicolas Hamel, Morales/Napolean Boneparte; Drew Battles, Pincepousse/Talleyrand; Jason Duga, Creux/Mercure; Anthony McMurray, General LeClerc/Pythagore; Weston Twardowski, Sparks/Walter Reed; Jason Bayle, Dorilante/Feydeau; Gregory Leute, Harcourt/King Carlos; Jenny Ballard, Madame Mandragola/Livingston; Katrina Despain, Dona Smerelda/Josephine; Ruby Lou Smith, Calliope/Dona Athene; Molly Conarro, Terpsichore/Mrs. Sparks; Chia-Wen Hsu, Euterpe/Madame Dorilante; Kenna J. Moore, Melpomene; Mercedes Wilson, Leda; Shea Stephens, Orphee; Ensemble: Michael Alexander, Seth Disalvo, Sofia Hurtado, Kamrin Kennedy, Sarah Patin.
- ARTISTIC STAFF: Paul Russell, director; Molly Buchmann, choreographer; Ken George, scenic designer; Corey Globke, costume design; Ken White, lighting design; E.J. Cho, sound design; Raul Gomez, composer.