Forgotten All-American Boys: George C Wolfe, Jeffrey Wright, Mos and the future of American theater
It’s a cold November night in New York, and the DDD is at the Lincoln Center Theater. Esteemed actor Jeffrey Wright is on stage, playing the lead role of antebellum dandy Jacques Cornet in the Broadway production of John Guare’s play A Free Man of Color, directed by George C Wolfe.
By the time you read this, the play will have closed. It’ll perhaps be on its way to another theater, or perhaps its run will have ended for now, or forever. What becomes of the play in the years to come will be interesting to see. Reviewers haven’t been kind to it in its time at the LCT: it’s too long, it’s too confusing, it’s too ambitious. All these things may be true (although criticising art for being too ambitious is like criticising trees for being too green). Do they matter? Not really.
Whatever becomes of this play, it remains a work with volumes to say about a variety of weighty issues: identity, race, history and the whole notion of America as a country. It’s a neo-classical work in a tradition that never existed, a kaleidoscopic take on hyper-realism and historical fiction that presents an ambitious model for the world American theater in the 21st century. And it features another chapter in what’s becoming a potent triple act in that world: the ongoing creative collaboration between Wolfe, Wright and Mos.
Forgotten All-American Boys
Talking to Wright, you couldn’t be left in any doubt that you’re speaking to an actor (with the stress on the second syllable of the word). You’d miss him on the street, but the minute he sits down and starts speaking, you just know – he speaks in considered phrases punctuated by long pauses, gestures expansively, laughs a lot in a way that seems to resonate around the room. He’s friendly and charming and clearly razor-sharp – so much so that you find yourself watching what you say. This is not, you get the feeling, a man you want to make a fool of yourself in front of.
“George and I have [something] in common in our genetic make-up,” says Jeffrey Wright. “We’re these forgotten all-American boys. As President Obama said, I think in his first press conference after taking office, ‘We’re all American mutts’ [Specifically, he suggested that the First Family would be getting a dog that was ‘A mutt like me’ – Ed.]. That’s what America is, this mélange, this gumbo.”
Jeffrey Wright and George C Wolfe first worked together some time in 1993, on the original stage production of Angels in America, which won Wolfe a Tony award for Best Director and Wright one for Best Actor. They’ve worked together plenty since – amongst other things, on Wolfe’s debut feature film Lackawanna Blues and on the stage production Topdog/Underdog, both of which were also landmarks in the burgeoning acting career of a man called Mos.
A Free Man of Color, then, provides another crossing of the paths for three unique talents, talents that are very different but clearly complement one another great effect. Wright says, “George and I know each other very well – professionally and artistically – having worked together fairly regularly since 1993, so he understands what my creative curiosities wander toward. He knows a little bit about my aspirations, and my artistic aspirations jibe with his… [And] from a pure directorial standpoint, he sees more in my performances than any other director I’ve worked with. He’s able to see what I’m unable to observe because I’m inside of it.
“That’s not always the case – many directors don’t see. He has a broad and acute vision particularly with this play, because he was at the genesis of the thing, and came in with a broadly realized vision, moreso than I’ve seen having worked with him countless times before. It was really very exciting. For me, personally, he’s the best. I think it can be argued generally, but for me personally, he’s the best director in America – film or theater.”
The third cog in the relationship is Mos, of whom Wright speaks with fraternal affection. “Mos, man… people like to see us together, and I enjoy working with him. I don’t know if we’re starting some kind of duo, some thing… We just show up and do it and enjoy each other’s work. It’s over-used, but I feel we’re very much a fraternal relationship – we’re brothers from some odd family [laughs uproariously].”
For his part, Wolfe speaks with genuine affection and respect about his actors, and particularly Wright, with whom he’s worked for so many years. “I really respect Jeffrey as an actor – he’s incredibly smart and very skilled and has a tremendous emotional reservoir, and is really, really smart about text. I know he respects and trusts me, and so generally I think more often than not we complement one another, because I see things he doesn’t see, and I trust his integrity about things he sees.
“Occasionally we collide, because he’s wrong and I’m right [laughs good-naturedly]. One has to either allow him to be wrong until he realises that I’m right, or let him be wrong and then he wakes up and he decides to do the thing I’ve been telling him to do all along, and pretends it’s his idea [laughs some more]. So it’s not complicated. But his vocal instrument, his emotional instrument, and his mind… they’re thrilling to play with. It’s thrilling to throw him into worlds and see how his own alchemy goes to work and crafts [the process] into this really interesting thing.”
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about speaking to George C Wolfe is the insight it allows you into his directorial process. As Wright says, “It’s a full, mind/body/spiritual performance for him. That’s where he performs, and we are his captive audience. It’s really wonderful to be around him.”
The DDD suggests to Wolfe that the way a play turns out must be a kind of de facto negotiation between the director’s vision and the way the actors want to play the characters. He shakes his head adamantly, the leans forward, and speaks quietly and solemnly. ”You know what ends up happening? This has happened a number of times: I know what I want to do, and then when I start working with the actors I instantly forget it, but then what I end up with ends up being very similar to the thing I initially wanted to do. So you figure out what you want to do, and then you have to throw it away, and if it’s a really brilliant idea, it’ll work its way back toward that. If it isn’t, something [else] will come from it.
“I think what creativity really is is living inside of the unknowns for as long as you possibly can, and making yourself vulnerable to what you don’t know. [It’s] doing as much work as you possibly can so you know as much as you possibly can, and then letting go of all of that and dangling somewhere, not knowing what you’re doing, and letting it reveal itself. It’s not mindless because you’ve done all the work; it’s some bizarre act where you’re trying to figure out… I think when you’re directing, you’re trying to make everybody vulnerable to that moment.”
He pauses, and then gets right to the heart of what makes cinema special, what keeps it relevant in the 21st century, what drives the ongoing working relationship between him and his regular actors, what keeps Wolfe and Wright and Mos and everyone else in the theater for another night. ”Every night, what the audience is witnessing is a truth that was discovered just for them. As opposed to recycling a bunch of bullshit that you already know.”
No Safety Net: American Theater and the Constraints of Realism
“I have grown tired,” sighs Jeffrey Wright, “and somewhat constrained, by realism as the accepted method of acting.”
We’re sitting in the Lincoln Center café, and we’re discussing the fact that there’s something particularly theatrical about A Free Man of Color. This is admittedly a kinda ridiculous adjective to apply to, y’know, the theater – but even for a stage production, the play seems somehow hyper-theatrical, every gesture exaggerated, every costume ultra-garish, every set opulent and extravagant. The play is overdone, but not in a pejorative sense of the word – it’s larger than life, hyper-real.
As such, the point that Wright has just made about realism gets to the heart much of what drives this piece. “The play,” he continues, “allows for broad theatrical gesture, and heightened language, and a hyper-realistic take on acting, which is something I’m very attracted to. American actors usually only have a chance to exercise [this] within a purely European aesthetic, which is no fun at the end of the day.”
He pauses, and considers his words. “Or it’s not the most fun, I should say. I enjoy doing Shakespeare, but I always feel beholden culturally to a degree in a way that’s uncomfortable, and in a way that I think we should reject to an extent as American artists, because I believe we do define our own theatrical landscape.”
Wright’s work in this play – along with the performances of Mos and the many other fine actors who share the stage with him, and particularly along with Wolfe’s direction – represents the latest step in a career that’s been a study in doing just this. As with Wright’s character Cornet and his European affectations, A Free Man of Color adopts the accoutrements of a foreign tradition and makes them its own. And it does so in a way that both subverts and elevates those details, creating something that’s larger than life and bursting with ambition. The result is something new and unique, a sort of historical hyper-realism that blends fact and fiction and plays with notions of history and identity in a uniquely American context.
But most importantly, it bursts with the possibilities engendered by the theater itself. For all its flaws (and depending on who you listen to, they’re either manifold or vastly over-stated – for what it’s worth, the DDD definitely falls into the later camp), A Free Man of Color questions notions of what a play can be and what it can do, and in doing so, it questions its audience as much as it does the medium. It demands a lot of the audience, but in a way that rewards investment of your time and brain power.
“I guess it does demand a lot,” muses George C Wolfe. “I think that’s a good thing. As opposed to asking nothing? Theater should stimulate you on every level. It should stimulate the delight inside you, but it should also prickle, and fuck with, and engage, your mind and your heart in a really interesting dance with one another.”
We meet the director downtown a couple of days before we speak to his star, escaping the unseasonal freeze at an endearingly dingy café down on the Hudson River. In person, Wolfe is quietly garrulous, if such a thing can be – somewhat softly spoken, but full of ideas and words and fascinating insights into his work. After a spectacular career on Broadway in the early part of this decade, Wolfe did what many before him have done – he moved into the world of film.
Wolfe draws an interesting contrast with film, a medium in which he’s also worked extensively: “Film is so damn literal. A chair is a chair is a chair. In the theater, a chair can become anything you want. Any gesture, any movement, any object can become whatever you decide it is. There’s a kind of liberation when you play that way. But at the same time, there’s a quote from Stravinsky: ‘Genius is born of limitations.’ It’s nice to be able to create your entire world, and play inside of that. But it’s just as much fun to play inside of a very contained world and try to find your freedom inside of the rigidity of that. And going back and forth [between the two] is fascinating.”
There’s an argument to be made that freeing oneself from the constraints of simply representing what is ultimately allows performers to search for a truth that transcends literalism. (As Mos will later tell the DDD, “For myself as an actor, I’m trying to find the truth of that character, and tell that truth. What the story means to me isn’t necessarily what the story might mean to someone else.”)
There’s also an argument that in 21st century America, the theater is a more important vehicle than ever for allowing actors – and writers, and directors – to do so. And in a world where Hollywood is recycling DC Comics plots and Harry Potter books, the theater continues to provide a place where both directors and actors (and writers, for that matter) to do so.
Wright says that as an actor, theater provides him with far more flexibility than American film today. “I don’t know why we’ve gotten drawn into this. It was interesting, [the] Stanislavsi [method] and all that – it was drawn out of melodramatic traditions that I guess were no longer resonating in the way that they had. But I think it’s time to broaden [our scope] a little bit, to expand it a little bit.”
As with Wolfe, he contrasts this with the world of film: “There’s a safety net that’s driven by commercial interests, commercial desires, that put the brakes on a lot of progress there.” Mos concurs: “In film, the actor is really just an instrument, and everyone else who has control over that final image, they’re the real storytellers. And in a lot of cases, that can be people whose interest is not the story. It can be the bottom line, or their own perspective of the world. So as an actor, the medium of film is not a place where you have a lot of control, because what you do on the day or in that moment that you really think connects you to the story or the truth of the character may never get seen.”
As actors, both Mos and Wright enthuse about the creative possibilities that working on stage allows them. Wright suggests, “American film acting has become so grounded in representing things as they are – I think it limits the breadth and freedom of storytelling. I would think that theater provides that room, and certainly historical theater in this case, because we’re compressing a lot of data into one play, so there has to be broad sweeps [gestures expansively].”
For his part, Mos – perhaps appropriately for someone who’s as respected for his music as he is for his acting talents – draws an analogy to music: “The difference [between film and theater] is akin to the difference between recording in the studio and performing live. In theater, the story really belongs to us. After we’re on stage, we can do what we like, and it’s another type of freedom in that. And also there’s another type of connection you’re having with the audience. If you can make someone suspend their disbelief while you’re in earshot of them, you’re really transporting them to another place.”
Theater certainly has entertained its fair share of literalism, but with A Free Man of Color, Wolfe, Mos and Wright have all leapt in the complete opposite direction, embracing the ultimately symbolic nature of on-stage performance and extending it as far as possible. In this sense, it’s pretty much perfect that the script was provided by that scourge of kitchen-sink naturalism, John Guare, who recently told The Guardian in the UK, “What I hate about kitchen-sink dramas is [this idea] that the set is real, therefore you’re going to be seeing truth. You have to earn truth. Truth can’t be a part of the fact that people appear to talk that way and live in that room. You’re looking for the poetry in something, and I don’t mean poetry in the fancy sense. Naturalism believes by just replicating a thing you give the truth, rather than earning the truth.”
This, coincidentally enough, echoes a quote from Aristotle, which Wolfe paraphrased (albeit somewhat loosely) to the Lincoln Review when the play opened: “Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.“ Wolfe’s version went like this: “History is what did happen, drama is what could have happened.”
As with all great works, A Free Man of Color challenges both itself and its audience. It challenges its performers to embrace a truth that transcends literalism. It’s not a literal rendering of history, clearly – it’s a distillation, a kind of hyper-history. And it poses two fundamental questions of its audience: who were we? And therefore, who are we?
Blacks and Whites and Shades of Gray
“One of the biggest drags of racism,” says Mos quietly, “is that it tells a lie to us about us. It tells us that we are not curious about one another, that we’re closed off, that we’re not interested in each other’s happiness or well-being. Which is a lie. You don’t watch the game show to watch the losers. You don’t. You watch to watch people win, because we’re interested in one another’s triumphs and joy. When bad things happen, we feel that. Not to say that [negativity] doesn’t exist in the human condition, but it’s not integral or a natural state of being for us to be comfortable with someone else’s misery. It’s not natural.”
It’s late December, and A Free Man of Color’s run is drawing to an end. The DDD is sitting in Mos’s dressing room at the Lincoln, a well-appointed two-chamber retreat set off the corridor that leads to the stage. Despite its occupant’s protestations that the room is “messy”, it’s honestly anything but – the only semblance of anything out of place is a silk scarf on the couch, which the DDD makes an ass out of itself by sitting on. Mos gently removes it from underneath us and hangs it by the door.
In our discussion earlier today, Jeffrey Wright suggested to us that the play has made audiences uncomfortable by challenging comfortable notions about race: “I do think that certain members of the audience are resistant to some of the ideas, or are more comfortable with more simplistic ideas on America, and on race, and feel a little uncomfortable having to renegotiate their relationship with some of their accepted ideas about race, and their relationship to it.”
We’re discussing the issue with Mos tonight. “The journey of this play has been interesting,” he agrees, “because it brings up a lot of issues about race, sex, class.” However, he suggests that all these things are aspects of a more fundamental point: “Race, class, all those things are really issues of identity.”
As we’ve looked at before, by posing the question, “Who were we?”, the play also asks, “Who are we?” And the answer isn’t always a comfortable one.
“[New York],” says Wright, gesturing out the window of the Lincoln Center, “is the heart of liberal America, and some have isolated themselves from some of these questions, or constructed very safe constructs around themselves that prop up their own sense of sanctimoniousness and don’t want that to be upset. I’ve started to embrace the less sympathetic reception to the character, which is very subtle and not pervasive, but I’ve started to work toward jamming him down the throat of some of these folks, to fatten their livers – if they stay with it, there’s a tastiness to his unravelling and falling from grace.”
The fall from grace depicted in A Free Man of Color is certainly tasty, and harrowing, and again, bursting with allegory. Cornet isn’t an entirely sympathetic character – you can understand why the menfolk of New Orleans are less than enthused about him banging their wives – but nor is he in any way deserving of the fate that befalls him. Freedom is a conceit central to American identity – just ask the Tea Party – so the idea.
As ever, though, there’s no real black and white in the play, neither literally nor metaphorically. Just as Wolfe identifies New Orleans as defined by ambiguity, so are many aspects of the play itself. One of the opening speeches catalogues the racial diversity on show in New Orleans – “mulattos, quadroons, sambos, mameloucs”. There’s literally no polarisation of the sort that emerged in the years that followed – no black and white, only colors. And this idea is echoed in other aspects of the play. As Mos will sagely note as we discuss his two roles – slave Murmur and Haitian revolutionary Touissant – “The interesting thing [about the play] is that no-one is really quite free. Even the historical figures… Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson… The world is in such a state of flux that no-one is free.”
As such, the play does its best to question the simplistic notions of race and identity that persist in America today, and are to some extent a legacy of the time it depicts, when the puritanism of the USA was suddenly and unilaterally imposed on the licentiousness of the city. It suggests that absolutes are illusory – look at how Cornet’s freedom is snatched from him – and also that diversity should ultimately be embraced.
Wright suggests that the legacy of these notions is that we sell ourselves short as a people and as a nation: “We greatly oversimplify who we are as a people. Our history is greatly oversimplified, and our understanding of racial identity is muted. I don’t think we necessarily want to embrace, as a people, our racial complexity – which is tragic, because we’re much more interesting than our history allows us to be. We’re really dynamic, multi-cultural, fascinating people, but there’s this kind of puritanical tarpaulin that was cast over much of the country that inhibits the flourishing of all these elements.”
Again, history is an ever-present shadow in modern-day America. As Mos says, “[The issue] keeps creeping up because it never got put to sleep. That’s what Jefferson did, he deferred it to a generation of men after him, who in many instances were not as gifted as he was. He was a deeply flawed man, but he was a man of certain vision and talent who did not resolve this issue. He left it to lesser men after him. And they deferred it. And here we are.
It’s not going to go anywhere until we put [them] to rest, until we go, ‘Listen. We’re all here, and it’s an advantage to us that we’re so different and that we’re all here together, and we have to work this out, because as you go, so go I.’ Without sounding too preachy or weepy, it’s the truth: when your neighbour is hungry, that’s a problem for you.
“For a long time in this country it’s been treated as a distant phenomenon that doesn’t affect me, doesn’t affect my world, I’m so sorry, but I can do nothing for you. We’re not as distant as we imagine. Not even nationally, just as human beings on this planet. We’re a lot more interdependent than a lot of us are willing to admit. Whether that’s just the nature of the ego, or whatever it is, it’s not a sustainable paradigm for the species. We will eliminate ourselves if we close off to one another with all these petty divisions. It’s not viable. It’s suicidal.”