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A Free Man of Color’s Jeffrey Wright on Why Some White Playwrights Have Trouble Tackling Race

As a film actor, Jeffrey Wright frequently appears in small-but-complex character roles. Onstage, however, he inevitably dominates, as with his current run in Broadway's A Free Man of Color, in a wildly demanding role that playwright John Guare and director George C. Wolfe conceived specifically for him. Wright plays Jacques Cornet, a preening bi-racial aristocrat who sleeps (and rhymes) his way through New Orleans in 1801. The actor, who burst onto the scene in the early nineties with a Tony-winning performance in Angels in America and the title role in Basquiat, is also starring in the upcoming sci-fi film Source Code from Moon director Duncan Jones. We called Wright between performances on Wednesday night to discuss his current demanding role, and how unusual it is for white playwrights to tell the truth about race.

So when you found out that John Guare was writing a play for you, was your first reaction, “Oh, I bet it’s a neo-Restoration epic about racism in America”?
No, it was certainly not something that I anticipated … I could not have begun to imagine what John would create, and the scale of what he had imagined was really thrilling to me. However, it was very much in line with my desires as an actor — specifically, that he created an environment of classical proportion, of epic sweep, that allowed for heightened gesture and heightened language, but was set within a specific American historical sociopolitical landscape. That’s something that I’ve been searching for, because I very much enjoy doing Shakespeare and Restoration comedy, but there’s always something of myself culturally that I have to transform or amputate in order to slot myself into that world, because it’s purely informed by a European aesthetic.

It also seems like an unusually physical role for you.
Yes. And probably the most demanding role that I have undertaken onstage. I don’t know if that’s a function of the role or a function of my getting older [laughs], but yeah, it’s a real challenge on the body and on the lungs. But it’s an emotionally taxing journey that the character takes as well, in order for it to be effective — because he’s self-involved and potentially unsympathetic, so if his fall from grace is not totally devastating and vulnerable, then it throws off the balance of the narrative arc.

You’ve been a big advocate for the city of New Orleans, in which this play is set, but you also were arrested (with W co-star Josh Brolin) in an altercation in Shreveport, Louisiana. When you were talking to New York Magazine about that a couple years ago, you said you were trying with great difficulty to take something positive away from that experience. Are you far enough removed from it now to do that?
Well, it mildly informed some elements of the last part of this show. It’s still something of a challenge to be a free man of color in certain parts of Louisiana, and I’m not the only one who has experienced that. You know, the tension within the play is between this freer society, a society that allows for these multicultural influences to flourish and simmer into this delicious gumbo, with this Puritanical historical streak that was introduced post–Louisana Purchase, which was a function of the contradictions within Jeffersonian democracy. It is historically corroborated that there was a spike in racial tensions in New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase. There was a more racist element that was given greater room for malevolence, and history informs the present day, so there are still overt aspects that exist there now. Now that’s not to say that the entirety of that incident was fueled by racism, but it played a significant part. There were other influences as well. But it certainly could have been avoided with a little more open-mindedness and less Puritanical militancy on the part of the police force down there. But we’re digressing.

All right, let’s go back. You’ve expressed some negative sentiments about This is How It Goes, Neil Labute’s quote-unquote race play in which you starred. Both that and A Free Man of Color are plays by white playwrights that deal explicitly with racism, which I think is a subject that a lot of white writers are afraid of tackling in depth. Do you have a take on that?
Well … [Long pause] John was exhaustive in his research of this world, and worked as well in close collaboration with George throughout the process of writing this play. There was a rigorous examination on John’s part of the social complexities that thread through this play, that’s required for a fully developed and evolved piece to be created. That’s not always the case. John is also not fearful of the racial sensitivities that his play evokes. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true of — I mean, that’s rare among white writers, white directors that I’ve been involved with, that they’re willing to have a vulnerable conversation about race. I mean, that’s a function of the hackles and defensiveness that all too often get in the way of a real clear and productive communication. John was able to wrestle with these ideas and give shape to them through this play. But he’s exceptional.

I recently saw the trailer for your upcoming movie Source Code, which is directed by Duncan Jones, whose dad, David Bowie, starred with you in Basquiat. Did he have anything to do with this upcoming collaboration?
You’re asking if David is now my agent? [Laughs.] I had met Duncan some years ago, I think at a birthday party for his dad. So that factored into it as well. But moreover, it was this compelling vision that he brought to Moon, which is what drew me in. It was his work, not his father’s, although I have the highest regard for his dad.

When you’re approached by fans, what role are you usually recognized for?
It depends on what neighborhood I’m in. Depending on the neighborhood, it’s Felix Leiter (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace), it’s Peoples Hernandez (Shaft), it’s Belize from Angels in America, Martin Luther King (Boycott), Basquiat — some of these characters co-habitate in certain neighborhoods, but it depends on what street I’m walking down.

So you’re all things to all people.
Or they’re not quite sure entirely what to make of me at any given time, but they appreciate some aspect of what I’ve done.

Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Doha Tribeca Film Festival