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Salem State actors seamlessly execute challenging societal critique in ‘Free Man of Color’

Salem State actors seamlessly execute challenging societal critique

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Salem State actors seamlessly execute challenging societal critique in ‘Free Man of Color’
A scene from Salem State University's production of "A Free Man of Color." Photo: Courtesy Salem State University

The Salem State University Theatre Department does not mess around. Its production of “A Free Man of Color,” running through April 29 at the Sophia Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts, has it all. The romping satire features dramatic fight scenes, a chase montage, hip-hop dance interludes and a wardrobe Louis XVI would envy, to name only a few of its charms.

The play follows wealthy, mixed-race playboy Jacques Cornet (Jeomil Tovar) and his slave Cupidon Murmur (Hubens “Bobby” Cius) in a pre-Louisiana Purchase New Orleans when the city was at its freest. John Guare wrote the play in 2010 with Jeffrey Wright in mind for the lead. Its overt commentary on race is both humorous and sobering in its continued relevance. Director Peter Sampieri says, “I’ve been trying to push the needle of diversity in our department. Those actors are there, they’re just not being cast.”

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Lensey Alerte stars as Dr. Toubib in Salem State’s production of “A Free Man of Color.”

Lensey Alerte stars as Dr. Toubib in Salem State’s production of “A Free Man of Color.” Photo: Courtesy Salem State University

Indeed, the cast of 33 represents a vast spectrum of backgrounds. Culture and dialect are important to the show’s plot, illustrating the melting pot New Orleans was at the time. Under the tutelage of Celena Sky April, chair of the theatre and speech communications department, the actors nailed their accents, from French and Spanish to Haitian and English. The actors performed at a professional caliber throughout the entire complex production. This show is a window into Boston and New York’s future talent pool.

A three-hour journey

Sampieri says the production allowed for a lot of discussion and soul-searching within the cast. “At a university like Salem State we have the luxury of a long rehearsal process with reading and research and discussion,” he says. The production is as much a discussion-based course on colorism, colonialism and racism as it is an amusing night at the theater. 

One of Sampieri’s boldest additions to the show is that of dance interludes to modern music such as Kendrick Lamar’s “LOYALTY” and Syl Johnson’s 1969 “Is It Because I’m Black.” In many scenes, a crowd will be dancing in traditional 19th-century style to instrumental music when suddenly a hip-hop beat takes over and the twerking begins. These inserts aren’t merely for entertainment; Sampieri says they provide a respite for the audience and allows them to keep an analytical, emotional distance from the drama.

“A Free Man of Color,” is a comedy, and an engaging viewing experience, but it takes work. Clocking in at almost three chaotic hours, jam-packed with cultural references, historical side scenes and societal critique, it’s a challenging but worthwhile performance.

a free man of color, salem state university, sophia gordon center