Six Degrees of Jeffrey Wright
By Armond White, NY Press
When Jeffrey Wright’s unforgettable performance as Muddy Waters in Cadillac Records was overlooked by movie prize-givers in 2008, he moved on. Ahead of him was A Free Man of Color, a play that theater visionary George C. Wolfe had commissioned in 2003 during his tenure at The Public Theater, and is currently being produced by Lincoln Center Theater. Playwright John Guare created a lead role—Jacques Cornet, the 19th-century Louisiana freed slave—commensurate with Wright’s talent and political awareness. The role of Cornet, whose transition to freedom coincided with the Louisiana Purchase and the territorial exploration of Lewis and Clark, showcases Wright’s talent. In other words, Wolfe and Guare were situating Wright in history in a way that makes up for the marketplace neglect of Cadillac Records and the achievement it represented for the cultural appreciation of black artists from Muddy Waters to Wright himself.
When asked about this crafty role in this ambitious work, Wright explains, “A number of things interested me about it, but what excited me was that George commissioned a play of classical properties.” A Free Man of Color takes Wright away from the glib, trivial pretenses of some of lesser film projects (Syriana, Ride with the Devil, Lady in the Water) and brings him into undeniable focus as even his better film projects (Manchurian Candidate, W., Casino Royale) have not.
Starting with his role as Belize in the original New York production of Angels in America, his first film-lead in Basquiat, his Martin Luther King Jr. in Boycott, his scene-stealing turn in Wolfe’s Lackawanna Blues, his ingenious Muddy Waters and now a full-fledged showcase in A Free Man of Color, Wright’s created a panoply of characterizations that chart six degrees of his artistry. Quiet as it’s kept, he has the most impressive and potential-rich acting figure in American theater and film right now.
Center-stage in the epic A Free Man, Wright gets to demonstrate the meaning of acting and theater by translating those activities into the existential dilemma of an African American whose very being—and every activity—reflects political and historical significance. Cornet begins as a farcical figure taking advantage of his culture’s racist, sexual presumptions but then testing them. The test shows the limits of “freedom”—the far, circumscribing reach of racism—as well as the unlimited scope of human imagination.
Using Cornet to represent an actor’s predicament, Guare revisits thoughts on race and society that animated his 1980s epic Six Degrees of Separation. In that serio-comedy—now a part of cultural lingo describing social interconnectedness—a young black man posing as Sidney Poitier’s son swindled a group of wealthy white New Yorkers. It was a classic situation of liberal pretenses confounded by the misunderstood anxieties of a social outcast. This time Guare tweaks the situation by highlighting its resemblance to the theater’s grandest farcical traditions—from Moliere to Wycherly, including a sophisticated version of minstrelsy as when Cornet and his manservant, Murmur (played by Mos) trade surreptitious, subliminal, almost telepathic asides.
This affords Wright the opportunity to comment on his own artistic and social circumstance within a purely playful yet profound situation. “The play provides the chance to act out some classical gestures,” Wright says. “There’s heightened language within a special American context. It’s rare that American actors get to act in that usually European environment.” He’s referring to the aspect of make-believe, exaggeration and controlled expressiveness that are key to the art of acting and the spectacle of theater. It’s a privilege that black American actors are seldom given.
“Cornet is a would-be actor and storyteller. It’s a play of poetic freedom,” Wright emphasizes. “Theater is abstract by nature, but we as actors are sometimes hindered by realism.”
That’s the key to both A Free Man of Color and to Wright’s remarkable bluesman in Cadillac Records; Wright gave one of the signal film performances of the new millennium. He glorified the idea of Muddy Waters while making him a recognizable man of his time and caste. Wright brought out the soulful pragmatism of Southerner McKinley Morganfield who became a Chicago legend. Wright’s Muddy understood his own cunning and his exploitation, too—just like Guare and Wolfe’s conception of Cornet.
The experience of making Cadillac Records was difficult, Wright says. Its excellence is a fact not sufficiently impressed upon Wright due to the film’s inadequate public reception—even though its reputation and regard builds with every new viewer. Yet, Wright admits “We had a group of actors that really brought it to the set. We all discovered how much we adored these artists and their art: They crafted a whole universe out of dirt.” As good a description as any of the miraculous toil in the arts.