'A Free Man of Color' plays the name game

January 4, 2011

I think playwright John Guare owes playwright Charles Smith a large apology. When the New York theatrical trades announced a few months back a big Lincoln Center production of "A Free Man of Color," I assumed it was the play by Charles Smith that had received its world premiere in 2004 at Victory Gardens Theater, where Smith is a member of the Playwrights Ensemble. It seemed like a great one-two combination for Smith who also had an upcoming Off-Broadway debut of his 2000 play, "Knock Me A Kiss," also originally presented at Victory Gardens.

I was surprised to find, however, that the Lincoln Center play was a new work by John Guare ("Six Degrees of Separation" and "House of Blue Leaves") and not Smith's play, which is called "Free Man of Color," without the initial "A." To add to the confusion, both plays are costume dramas based on real events in African-American history taking place less than 25 years apart in the early 1800's. Of course, both titles use a common phrase of speech--once a term with a legal denotation--and therefore not subject to copyright. Still, Guare as a playwright must be aware of Smith, whose plays have been performed in New York for some years. To pick a title so close as to cause confusion is a discourtesy if unintentional, and thoroughly despicable if Guare was aware of Smith's work.

Smith has dealt with things in a business-like way: he's changed the title of his play to "Freed." It will have its New York premiere in June at 59E59. FYI: Guare's "A Free Man of Color" received generally disastrous reviews. It closes Jan. 9 after a run of less than two months. Karma?