Jeffrey Wright preens in 19th century New Orleans

Mon Nov 22, 2010 10:01pm EST
Email This Article |
Share This Article
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
| Print This Article | Single Page
[-] Text [+]

By Simi Horwitz

NEW YORK (Back Stage) - As much as he would like every project he tackles to be relevant, meaningful, and connected to the world around him, they aren't all like that, says Jeffrey Wright.

He has other considerations in deciding whether to take a role, such as tuition for his children. "Life evolves," he says. "The forces behind the choices evolve as well."

But taking on John Guare's new play "A Free Man of Color" was a no-brainer. George C. Wolfe, at the time artistic director of New York's Public Theater, commissioned Guare to write the script with Wright in mind to star. The play (not to be confused with Charles Smith's "Free Man of Color," which played in Los Angeles earlier this year) is now running at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater.

With a roster of credits in all media -- from the brazen nurse Belize in the Broadway and television productions of "Angels in America" to the controversial artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in the film "Basquiat" -- the 44-year-old actor is now playing a flamboyantly preening ladies' man named Jacques Cornet in early-19th-century French New Orleans.

The world of "A Free Man of Color" is peopled with broadly drawn, larger-than-life locals as well as historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, James Monroe, and Napoleon Bonaparte. This stylized, panoramic comedy-interspersed-with-tragedy is a story of manipulation, intrigue, and lots of adultery, in a place where the races intermingle freely.

Wright has worked with Wolfe on three previous productions -- including Suzan-Lori Parks' two-character play "Topdog/Underdog" -- and given the material's "complex racial ideas," the actor says, "there is no other director I trust to lead us through that type of landscape ... He had a long fascination with New Orleans as a rich, cultural, and historical reservoir for an American story, and he has a deep love for New Orleans. He describes it as the heart and soul of America. It's a coming together of cultures that represented the ideal of what America espouses itself to be."


A Washington, D.C., native, Wright majored in political science at Amherst College with his sights tentatively set on becoming an attorney. He shifted gears in his junior year when he saw a college theater production and had little doubt that he could act.   Continued...