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The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival 

Will Coviello talks to playwright John Guare, one of the speakers at this year's Tenn Fest

click to enlarge John Guare wrote A Free Man of Color about social upheaval in New Orleans during the era of the Louisiana Purchase.
  • John Guare wrote A Free Man of Color about social upheaval in New Orleans during the era of the Louisiana Purchase.

Playwright John Guare (The House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation) visited New Orleans once before creating his 2010 work A Free Man of Color. And it was an inauspicious stopover.

  "I was hitchhiking across the country in 1965," Guare says. "I stayed in some fleabag hotel. There was a baby crying all night in the room next door."

  But that visit didn't matter to his historical fiction about New Orleans at the time of the Louisiana Purchase.

  "New Orleans is a place in my mind," Guare says craftily. "And this one ceased to exist in 1803."

  In fact, one of the more useful sources he cites when asked about his research was a book he found from his college days at Yale — an account of the Louisiana Purchase written on its 75th anniversary.

  Guare will appear at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (March 22-25) where he will discuss his writing and read from Williams' work. Now in its 26th year, the festival features playwrights, poets, literary agents, panel discussions, theatrical presentations and programming that reflects many aspects of New Orleans' literary and creative culture.

  Guare's A Free Man of Color is an epic account of the geopolitical changes at stake — especially in New Orleans — at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, when the United States doubled in size. A late draft Guare presented to the director clocked in at five hours, though by the premiere it had been pared down to half that length. It featured a cast of more than 30, and in the opening run in New York, hip-hop artist Mos Def played two characters, a slave and Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L'Ouverture.

  "That was the size of the story," Guare says. "I had to talk about what was going on in France and in Washington at the time."

  Director George Wolfe (then at New York's Public Theater) originally approached Guare about creating the piece. He wanted a Restoration-style comedy set in New Orleans.

  "I knew two beans about the Louisiana Purchase and how it pushed America to empire," Guare says. "Adding the mixture of New Orleans to a white Protestant country was amazing. It was oil and water."

  In the play, Jacques Cornet (the son of a plantation owner and a slave) is a free man of color and one of New Orleans' wealthiest citizens. He's preoccupied with chasing women, particularly other men's wives, and the world's changing maps, and there is both gratuitous personal intrigue and absurd social upheaval as Louisiana becomes part of the United States and Cornet finds himself disenfranchised by the new world order.

  Guare will discuss the play at a panel (4 p.m. Friday at the Hotel Monteleone) about New Orleans' free people of color. Speakers also include mystery writer Barbara Hambly, New Orleans Public Library archivist Gregory Osborn and legal historian Daniel Sharfstein (The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America). Guare also will travel to Baton Rouge, where Louisiana State University is developing a production of the play for the fall.

  At the festival, Guare also will read from Mr. Paradise at a presentation (8 p.m. Saturday at the Hotel Monteleone) of readings of Williams' plays and essays by stage and film actress Piper Laurie and others.

  "There are two playwrights who greatly influenced Williams: Clifford Odets and William Saroyan," Guare says. "We've lost touch with Saroyan's voice — this whimsical and merry voice. Tennessee loved him. Mr. Paradise is written in that mode."

  A discussion (11:30 a.m. Sunday at the Hotel Monteleone) of contemporary theater will feature Guare and playwrights Jewelle Gomez (Bones and Ash, Waiting for Giovanni), Martin Sherman (Bent, The Boy From Oz) and John Biguenet (Rising Water, The Vulgar Soul). Other writers and guests at the festival include historian John M. Barry; Victor Navasky; former editor and publisher of The Nation; actress Amanda Plummer; food writer John Mariani, chef John Besh; and others.

  During the festival, Southern Rep will open a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. The company has not found a new home since vacating its theater at The Shops at Canal Place, and the production is at Michalopoulos Studio, one block from Stanley and Stella Kowalski's address in the play: 632 Elysian Fields Avenue.

  "It's like Blanche says, 'There was nowhere else to go, so I came here,'" says Southern Rep artistic director Aimee Hayes, who plays Blanche DuBois in the production.

  "I've had the incredible luck to play Hamlet in an ill-conceived production many years ago," Hayes says. "This will sound mystical, but when you say these words written so long ago, it's a deep pleasure. You become part of the tradition (of the play). That's touchy-feely, but it's true. The writing is so damn good."

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