“A Free Man of Color” at Swine Palace, reviewed by Louise Hilton
Swine Palace kicks off its 2012-13 season dedicated to the Louisiana Bicentennial with “A Free Man of Color.” Written by John Guare, and directed by prominent New York casting director Paul Russell and featuring Broadway actor Alvin Keith as Jacques Cornet, the play is sure to be another success for Swine Palace.
Set in New Orleans in 1801 to 1803, the play centers around Jacques Cornet, the bon vivant son of a blue-blooded businessman and one of his slaves. Upon his father’s death, Cornet purchased his freedom and now enjoys a hedonistic lifestyle, replete with the latest fashions, lots of women, and the finest food and wine. Dr. Toubib, the play’s narrator, encourages the audience to “take off [its] 21st-century eyes” and travel back to the early 19th century, when “race is a celebration” and “New Orleans is the freest city in America.”
Ambitious in its scale, the play attempts to cover the political maneuverings that led to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 with scenes alternating between Paris in the era of Napoléon, Washington (in a stand-out performance by Swine Palace Artistic Director George Judy as President Thomas Jefferson), Spain, and Saint-Domingue (the island we know now as Haiti) during the Toussaint Louverture-led revolt and separatist government. The massive sets are rather impressive and the director makes clever use of a large television screen above the stage to ensure the audience can keep track of where the scenes are taking place. Another noteworthy aspect of the production is the elaborate costumes designed by Corey Globke, everything from the brocade suits perfect for a dandy such as Cornet to the risqué dresses worn by brothel owner Madame Mandragola’s “girls.”
While Jacques Cornet’s raucous parties are fun to watch and the script is full of bawdy humor, the play has a serious underlying message. Decrying the infamous Code Noir imposed by Louis XIV, the once carefree Cornet chafes at his new status as a slave once the Louisiana Purchase makes New Orleans an American city. The play ends on a somber note, reminding the audience of the colorful yet complicated history of one of America’s most historically important cities.
Though not recommended for families due to mature content (including a few sexually explicit scenes as well as strong language), “A Free Man of Color” is not to be missed.
The play opened last night and runs through September 30. Evening performances include tonight at 7:30 as well as September 25-28. Sunday matinee performances are scheduled for September 23 and 30 at 2 p.m. Performances are in the majestic Claude L. Shaver Theatre in the Music and Dramatic Arts Building at LSU. Tickets are $28 for adults, $19 for seniors and LSU faculty/staff, and $15 for students, available online and at the door. Doors open at 7 p.m.
For more information on the show, including costume sketches, and more on past Swine Palace productions, visit the East Baton Rouge Parish Library’s Infoguide dedicated to Swine Palace.