Tavis: Jeffrey Wright is a terrific actor who many of us know from his Emmy-winning work in the acclaimed miniseries “Angels in America.” He joins us tonight from New York in advance of the Broadway debut of his latest project, John Guare’s “A Free Man of Color.”
The production opens in November, on the 18th, to be exact. Here now, a sneak preview of “A Free Man of Color.”
Tavis: Jeffrey, good to have you back on this program, sir.
Jeffrey Wright: Thank you, Tavis, good to be back.
Tavis: You guys have been in previews for a while and the show’s got a lot of good buzz on it. How do you know – I know you are a serious thespian – how do you know after all these previews when you personally are ready for the big night?
Wright: Well, the wonderful thing about doing stage is that you’re continually mining through the story and down into the character, so it evolves every night, and of course this is a new play. It’s a play that has epic dimensions to it, a lot of history behind it. So there’s a lot to discover.
So we’re still in previews now and we really treat these previews as rehearsals (laughs) because we’re continuing to flesh out and change things within the script, even.
So we’ll be ready for tomorrow’s performance and then we’ll continue to drive through and open on the 18th as you say. But it’s been a great process to this point as we pull back the layers of this thing and present it to the audience in its fully realized form.
Tavis: I’m going to sit back and let you explain what these layers are all about and what this play is about in its fully realized form. Take it away.
Wright: The play takes place in early 19th century New Orleans, and also, to a large degree, Haiti around the time of the Louisiana Purchase, when you had all of these wonderful international, multiracial confluences at work to create what is the city of New Orleans. New Orleans was very different from much of the United States in that a lot of these influences were allowed to flourish.
So you had as an expression of that jazz, for example, which was the coming together of these many different influences, but grounded in something that was truly American, because all of these influences were allowed to flourish and to be celebrated.
So the play deals with that dynamic, and at the center of all of this is a free man of color, the character that I play, who’s interacting with the rush of history that’s being driven by characters like Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson, Toussaint L’Ouverture, all coming together at this time in which there was a great upheaval in New Orleans at the time at which Jeffersonian democracy ultimately was imposed on the place and you had this shift in the dynamic there, where one control system was replaced by another.
Of course, prior to Jeffersonian democracy, prior to New Orleans being a part of America, there was a laxity, socially, sexually, racially, that existed, and the play deals largely with the contradiction of the coming of America and the coming of democracy, and the contradictions that came with it – a reintroduction of slavery, for example.
So the play is examining the history of New Orleans from that standpoint, and as well deals, as I said, with Haiti, because there was such a Haitian influence on New Orleans at that time. After the revolution in Haiti the population of New Orleans doubled because of the migration out of Haiti by not only free people but also rebellious slaves as well. So a lot at work and a lot at play within the story that we try to flesh out.
Tavis: Knowing you to the extent that I do, I think I already know the answer to this question but I want to pose it anyway, which is how you go about selecting the kinds of roles, whether on stage or on film, that you want to play these days. I sense that there’s an appreciation you have, given your explanation now, for complexity of character.
Wright: Well, I like to be kept on my toes. I look for a challenge. I don’t like to recreate steps that I’ve already walked. I like to see if I can create something new. That makes it exciting for me.
In this case, I didn’t so much choose this play as I was chosen by John Guare and George Wolfe, who are the real creative forces behind the birth of this play. George, when still artistic director of the public theater, commissioned this play, commissioned John to write a play about New Orleans set at this time that combined the European traditional influences of restoration comedy and the underpinning influences of American history.
So what we have is a story that begins as a restoration comedy but kind of unravels into an American tragic farce. Now, George has had a long love affair with New Orleans, and John Guare is one of the great American playwrights, so the two of them came together with the idea that they would write something with me in mind, and so I was chosen by this one, I didn’t choose it, and I accepted gladly.
Tavis: How much an honor is that, when you have two persons of their stature who specifically write something for you on the stage?
Wright: It’s a great honor. It’s also slightly intimidating, because it means you (laughter) have to make yourself worth of their choice and of their work. But George knows me as an actor better than anyone. He and of, of course, worked on “Angels in America” and “Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk,” “Topdog/Underdog,” so he has a very good sense of what I’m curious about as an actor and we also share, I think, certain creative aspirations through our work.
One of the things that’s most exciting for me about this is it’s an opportunity to use all the classical tools of our trade, but do it within the context of something specifically American.
As actors we do Shakespeare and Shakespeare is an extraordinary playwright, there’s no doubt about that, but we have to slot ourselves into his cultural reality, and it works – it works, it works very well. You can take “Macbeth” and you can transplant it into the Civil War era, or you can make other similar choices.
But in this case I’ve been given an opportunity to use classical gesture, to use heightened language, and do it within the context of a very specific American cultural and historical environment. That’s real thrill for an American actor, but also for an American audience, I think.
Tavis: When you put yourself into something, and again, when one sees your work, one knows that you embody these characters so beautifully, you put yourself into everything that you do. When you put yourself into it and it’s not met with the kind of critical acclaim or box office success that you hoped or thought it might be, how do you process that?
I ask that, of course, against the backdrop – anyone who has actually seen “Cadillac Records” knows it is some of the best work you have ever done. I have seen that thing a dozen times, I can’t stop watching. Again, anybody who has seen it will tell you Jeffrey Wright killed that, and yet it was not met with the kind of box office success as one might hope.
So when you pour yourself into a character and it comes out that way, how do you as an actor process that?
Wright: I blame somebody else. (Laughter) I try to pinpoint the person who should shoulder responsibility, and most often I find them. It takes a collaboration, whether it be theater or film, to make something fully successful, and you don’t often find all of the components that are going to allow that to happen. I tried to just focus on what I can control.
At the end of the day, it may mean that I need to find other elements of control within the work that I do and start producing some of these things as well, and that may be a next step. But the best thing about doing what we do is that it’s collaborative, and the worst thing is that it’s collaborative.
So you try to put yourself in situations in which you’re with a group of people who share a common aspiration for the piece, and so I’ve found that now Lincoln Center has been a really extraordinarily nurturing environment for this play. George Wolfe, John Guare and the rest of the cast, Mos Def is a part of this, a young actor named Paul Dano, veteran actors like John McMartin from Broadway, from “The World of Broadway” have come together and we’re really celebrating nightly this story and this opportunity to present a new historical American play that has immediate contemporary relevance and resonance.
The play was commissioned prior to Katrina, prior to the earthquake, obviously, but we hope that it does shed some light on the historical forces that led to the vulnerabilities that folks in New Orleans and folks in Haiti found themselves unfortunately within in these last years. So we’re in a good place now. We’re enjoying what we’re doing.
Tavis: Anything about New Orleans and Haiti is always timely, it seems, and anything starring Jeffrey Wright is always worth of seeing. It’s called, the play on Broadway, “A Free Man of Color,” in previews at the moment, opening November 18th. Hold my tickets, Jeffrey; I’ll be there mid-December to check you out in person.
Wright: Look forward to seeing you there, Tavis.
Tavis: I look forward to seeing you there as well. Jeffrey Wright, always good to have you on the program, sir.
Wright: Thank you, thank you.
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