For my initial blog chat with playwright John Guare, conducted at one of the tables just outside the production's main LCT rehearsal room, our primary subject was history - primarily of A Free Man of Color, but touching on two of the sources that inspired him.
"George Wolfe commissioned me to write a play for Jeffrey Wright," Guare said. This was in 2004, after Wolfe had directed Free Man actors Wright and Mos Def (now known as Mos) in Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog on Broadway, and before Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, a city central toFree Man's story.
"The idea for A Free Man of Color," Guare continued, "was to adapt a Restoration comedy into American terms. Jeffrey Wright would play a rake, and George hoped that the setting would be New Orleans, because its Mardi Gras celebration would be an occasion for theatricality."
Guare happily agreed to the commission and began work. He was inspired by what his research uncovered. After two years, Guare turned in his first version to Wolfe in 2006.
I told Guare how much I had learned from A Free Man of Color about the history of New Orleans and the West Indies in the late-18th and early-19th century, and how ignorant I felt about the period.
"We know nothing about American history in this country," Guare said, "so you're certainly not alone." To bolster his own sense of the epoch, Guare remarked that the two books of particular value were History of Louisiana and of the Cession, an 1830 work by François Barbé-Marbois; and the first two volumes of Henry Adams' late-19th-century masterpiece, History of the United States, which focus on Thomas Jefferson.
Adams is a well-known figure; Barbé-Marbois (1745-1837) less so, so here are a few fast facts. He was a marquis and a French politician. In 1785, he became intendant of the French colony of Saint-Domingue - an important place in A Free Man of Color. Increasing his usefulness to Guare's story: in 1803, he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase treaty by which Louisiana was ceded to the United States.
As my rehearsal-area conversation with Guare wound down, I mentioned that I'd heard A Free Man of Color referred to as The Coast of Utopia meetsHellzapoppin.
"The comparison couldn't make me happier," Guare replied.
LCT members will recognize Utopia as Tom Stoppard's award-winning trilogy about 19th-century Russian writers and intellectuals. Readers of this blog may be less familiar with the latter reference.
"Hellzapoppin' was a musical revue written by Olsen and Johnson," Guare said, before pulling out his Blackberry and punching up a few more facts. "The show opened in September, 1938, transferring to Broadway's Winter Garden later that year. It then moved to the Majestic, closing at the end of 1941. A movie was made of the material - a terrible movie." Guare added: "In terms of A Free Man of Color, Hellzapoppin refers not to any strict resemblance to the Broadway show's material, but to the production's overall atmosphere. The term 'hellzapoppin' has become a more generic term referring to a high-spirited, anarchic revue."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.