A fat monograph could be written about the matter of fashion in A Free Man of Color. While awaiting the appearance of that volume I spent some time with a recent book on a related topic: Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, by Monica L. Miller, an associate professor of English at Barnard College.
Miller's book had been mentioned by George C. Wolfe, the play's director, at the meet-and-greet prior to the actors' first rehearsal of John Guare's script, in September. I made a mental note to read the volume, and finally, this past weekend, on a long afternoon when I was tethered to the house waiting for the cable guy, I did.
In her introduction, Miller cites a statement by Stanford professor Harry Elam, Jr. making it clear that her study has a great deal to say about a figure like Jacques Cornet, the central character of A Free Man of Color, who, as the curtain rises, tells us that he is obsessed with attire and that he is writing a play. Writes Elam: "The 'race question' is inherently theatrical. From the arrival of the first African slaves on American soil, the discourse in race, the definitions and meanings of blackness, have been intricately linked to issues of theater and performance."
For elucidation on this matter and many others, I arranged to speak with Miller by phone. "The matter of public representation - and not just theatricality - is a very complex topic in black identity," she said. "For blacks in America, there is this element of always feeling as if you were on display." When I remarked that this connected directly to the matter of placed on the auction block for sale as a slave, Miller answered, "Yes, absolutely."
She added: "Black people learned that self-presentation has very valuable, risky, and tricky aspects. But it also has the potential to be exciting - to be self-defining rather than degrading." Excessive attention to one's clothing - "stylin' out," in the vernacular - was part of this thrill. Historically, Miller writes, it's a matter of "Africans dispersed across and around the Atlantic in the slave trade - once slaves to fashion - [making] fashion their slave." Adding a further layer in A Free Man of Color: Jacques Cornet not only makes fashion his slave but he makes his slave - Murmur, played by Mos - slave over his fashion.
Guare and Wolfe have spoken of Cornet as a kind of homage to the rake of Restoration comedy, so I asked Miller about the differences between the rake and the dandy and the fop. "That's so interesting about the Restoration influence in A Free Man of Color, remarked Miller, who has not seen the play but plans to, "because the differences between those terms are fascinating."
"The fop," she continued, "is primarily heterosexual and considered effeminate in a bad way. In Restoration drama" - interestingly, Miller's book originally had a chapter on that topic as it relates to race, which didn't make the final edit - "the fop is overwhelmed by objects of adornment." Whereas dandies, Miller said, "use the superficial more consciously as a tool to do something else - to make a point about social status, or to make a societal or cultural critique."
And the rake? "The rakish personality is in part a dandy but with much more of a heterosexual emphasis. He takes advantage of women in part to show off and to provide enjoyment for other men."
Miller emphasized that the fop and dandy and rake are types that may arise in Europe but that have taken shape throughout African-American history as well.
"Look back to something as basic as the civil-rights movement," she said. "So many of the men in the circle around Martin Luther King, Jr. wear nicely tailored suits - they're a little bit dandy. The reaction to that movement, the black nationalists, also has a fashion element: it could be very stylized, to send a very different message to the public."
When I asked Miller to name contemporary examples of the types, she replied, "Andre 3000, of Outkast, strikes me as a modern-day dandy in the best sense. He understands that the history of what he's doing - the use of clothing as self-expression and how it's tied to the market."
Miller's rake? "I'm going to have to go with Kanye West. He was one of the first rappers to wear jeans and a tailored jacket, moving away from the track suit."
Miller needed more time to name her 2010 fop. "That's difficult. One person I put in that category a few years back but you don't hear much about anymore is Fonzworth Bentley, the guy who was plucked out of obscurity by P. Diddy and then did a tour of the clubs, where he gave makeovers to hip-hoppers. He was both silly and interesting."
As Miller and I concluded our conversation it occurred to me that if Guare's Jacques Cornet is a rake then his slave, Murmur, is a dandy, or at least a dandy in the making. As Murmur takes his leave for the first time I imagine him shedding his slave's garb and assembling an entirely new wardrobe, so he, too, can be a free man of color.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.