Jacques Cornet, a black man from 19th-century Louisiana, speaks to Thomas Jefferson about his hypocrisy of being a slave owner and yet proclaiming, “All men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence.
Overwhelmed with passion, he yells, “I can’t breathe,” several times, and the stage of Temple Theaters’ production of “A Free Man of Color” becomes a Black Lives Matter protest.
It was the final moment of the play, which used humor and history to illustrate modern racial injustices.
“The first act is so funny, comical, you’re just loving it,” said Kalen Allen, a sophomore theater and film double major with a concentration in acting, who played Cornet, the main character. “And the second act you take this awkward turn you really weren’t prepared for. What used to be funny, it makes very ironic.”
Temple Theaters’ final production of the fall season, “A Free Man of Color,” played from Nov. 11-21 at Randall Theater. The play, written by playwright John Guare, tells the satirical story of a wealthy black heir from Louisiana. Freed from slavery, Cornet is a partier, womanizer and slaveowner, obsessed with wealth and women. But his fabulous lifestyle takes a turn for the worst when the United States purchases Louisiana from France.
Allen said the plot twist served to critique his character’s hypocrisy.
“In the beginning, he’s talking about how equality is a myth, how it’s not a real thing,” he said. “But he expects to be treated like an equal, but he doesn’t treat other people like that.”
The play takes place amid the history of the Haitian revolution, Napoleon’s worldwide empire and the settler colonial enterprise that is the U.S.
“People kind of look at history as this dream that we’ve woken up from and don’t have to think about,” said James Reilly, a sophomore double major in English and theater with a concentration in acting, who played Cornet’s jealous white half-brother, Zeus-Marie Pincepousse. “The way the play ends is a fresh reminder that our history is still being written, and our history is not something that we can just throw away or run away from.”
Allen agreed on the play’s relevance to the present day.
“Slavery has affected the African American community, still to this day,” Allen said. “We live off the scars of our ancestors. Those people were me. And my blood runs through them.”
The show’s diversity also helped represent racial minorities in the theater world. Doug Wager, artistic director of Temple Theaters and director of “A Free Man of Color,” said one of the department’s goals is to have proper representation.
“We have a diverse student population—it’s a reflection of the world that they live in,” Wager said.
For Allen, the role was significant because he said it’s rare for black men to play lead roles in stage performances.
“When I got this role, I was kind of taken aback,” he said. “I get my last curtain bow. I get that last bow this time. And that was something I thought I’d never be able to experience, just because it wasn’t available.”
“I’m very thankful [Temple Theaters] have given me this opportunity, because this could be my only opportunity, because there aren’t a lot of shows that are written like ‘A Free Man of Color,’” he added.
Wager said the play doesn’t necessarily solve social justice problems, but it helps expose audiences to the historical context of racial inequality.
“It’s understanding what went wrong,” he said. “By doing that, it empowers you to have more ideas how to fix it.”
Iman Sultan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.