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.
He enrolled in an acting class, appeared in several college shows, and signed up for the graduate acting program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. After two months, he dropped out to appear in a Boston production of “Les Blancs.” He also considered the school’s environment “too safe.”
Not surprisingly, Wright’s 1993 Broadway appearance in Tony Kushner’s Tony Award-winning “Angels in America” was both an artistic and career milestone, he says: “Just as the play was a celebration of what’s possible in the theater, for me as an actor it reinforced the ideas and ideals that drew me to acting.”
While “Angels in America” was clearly his turning point, Wright insists it’s his body of work that most defines him, including the films “Basquiat,” “Ride With the Devil,” and “Shaft,” and the TV movie “Boycott.”
Wright finds film the most challenging medium, paradoxically because it doesn’t feel to him like real work.
“It’s all chopped up into little vignettes and then handed over to a director, who can take a bad performance and make it look like there was actually an actor working there, or take a good performance and make it less than it aspired to be,” he says. “In theater, once the collaboration with the director has been realized, then the actor is entrusted to lift the story to where it should be, and that’s where the challenge is.”
Yet even in the film world, there is enormous variety, and contrary to what one might think, not all big-budget films are commodities, he emphasizes. “I’m part of a wonderful franchise, the Bond franchise,” having played CIA agent Felix Leiter in “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace.” “That’s about as big-budget as they come, but it feels like an independent movie when we’re on the set.”
Wright also has another creative outlet, a company involved in the economic development of Sierra Leone. Wright hopes it will serve as a model for an ethical, socially minded mining operation: “We’re trying to partner with local communities to harness the existing natural-resource potential, which would be to the mutual benefit of the company and the local community, and veer away from the historical trend of neglect at the local level.”
His interest in these issues harkens back to his college days and his political-science background. Africa has always fascinated him, he says, especially in its transition from a colonial to a post-colonial world: “These ideas have been simmering. I find it a very creative outlet, but it requires a great deal of focus. Between that and the demands of family life, my allegiance to acting wanes somewhat. I do enjoy acting tremendously, but the business side of it is not always so enjoyable.”
He momentarily ponders leaving acting altogether, then backtracks, suggesting that working in the Guare play makes that unlikely. “A Free Man of Color” has rekindled his passion for acting, especially as it’s a play that doesn’t live within the naturalistic tradition. “We’ve gotten bogged down with the idea that we’re re-creating reality,” Wright says. “I think we can leave that to the reality-show people, and we as actors can afford to be abstract and gestural.”