Look At That Big, Beautiful… White Space? Staging Review: A Free Man of Color

Now, let me explain this a little bit. I am required to write five essays for my theater appreciation class, and two of those have to be on a specific aspect of a show, such as the acting, lighting, etc. That’s where this essay comes from. Skip to the last paragraph if you want a short review of the play in general. (If you wanted to see this show, you’re out of luck. It just closed. Sorry!) And because this post is coming on a Tuesday, the photo of the week shall have to be delayed.

The term “white space” refers to any place on a map that has been unexplored. Thus the mapmakers don’t know what natural features exist in that area and are forced to leave it a blank “white space.” In the play A Free Man of Color, by John Guare, America has just completed the Louisiana Purchase, and Thomas Jefferson is sending out an extremely excited Meriwether Lewis into the white space to find out “just what the hell it is [they] bought.” The set lifts up to reveal… a white space. A giant, brightly lit, white space.

And that’s when you realize, amidst all the witty humor, the fourth wall breakage, the modern pop culture references, and all the sex Jacques Cornet, the lead character, has, just how genius the set really is.

Most of the action in the play takes place on the apron of the stage, in front of the proscenium arch – actually, very little of the action takes place behind it on the stage proper. By necessity, then, the set is very mobile – to change scenes, everything needs to be brought offstage and new props brought on. This is compensated for by having relatively small props that the actors and actresses can bring on and off themselves, but this does not mean that the props are austere – quite the contrary, in fact, especially when scenes take place inside Cornet’s large mansion.

The apron itself actually gets heavy use as part of the set. There is a safe built into it, as well as the trapdoor of a ship. Towards the rear of the apron and extending onto the stage proper, there are rails that allow particularly large props to be slid back and forth, and there is an elevator near the front of the apron. Again, with most of the action taking place on the apron, one has to use it to its fullest extent – Free Man does this particularly well, as it was not hard to imagine a different setting with every scene change.

The set, however, doesn’t simply contribute to the settings and background of the play. It manages to tell a story all its own. Towards the beginning of the play, as Cornet relishes in his wealth and prosperity, the set is more ornate, and there are many other props brought onto the stage; it gives off an air of wealth, elegance, and even arrogance at times. But as Cornet’s fortunes sour towards the very end, the set becomes austere and cold – the giant white space is a good example of this, as Cornet is living on his own with barely anything, as well as the giant American flag backdrop during the last scene when he is captured and put into slavery.

The play is known for its humor, so it makes sense that the set takes part in that humor and genius. Again, the white space is the most obvious example, but not just for the shock value of taking the words of the play literally. The proscenium arch, the “window” to the stage, is completely lifted away to give a sense of openness and nothingness, to create a void symbolizing the unknown. There are others, too. The top of the proscenium arch is used to display a cipher that all the actors stare at as the message sent from Spain is finally decoded. Cornet’s bed features a parody of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, with Adam’s face being replaced by his own.

The set does get serious, as well. The hole that Cornet falls into on the ship is eerily realistic. And the gates of New Orleans – the very gates that served as a safe confine to Cornet in the past – turn into prison gates as he is captured and enslaved in the last scene.

Overall, I thought the play was very entertaining. I love fourth wall breakage and gags, and Free Man contained a lot of it. It was quite anachronistic as well — references to future events abound. The play did get heavy towards the end as Cornet’s fortunes turned for the worse, but overall it was a relatively light-hearted play that put a new spin on history from the eyes of a fictional character trying to find himself in the world.

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