What makes a man (or woman) free? Is it simply not living under slavery… or is being able to choose your own destiny based on your convictions? That’s the ultimate question being asked by the drama “Free Man of Color” currently being presented at the Colony Theatre in Burbank.
“Free Man of Color”, written by Charles Smith, tells the story of John Newton Templeton, the first Afro-American student to graduate Ohio University. Templeton was freed in 1813 at the age of 6 or 7, at which time he and his family migrated to Ohio, eventually settling in Adams County. With the aid and encouragement of Rev. Robert G. Wilson, avowed abolitionist and president of Ohio University (1824-1839), Templeton enrolled at the University in 1824. It is noteworthy that Ohio University, unlike many institutions of higher education at this time, had no restrictive clauses pertaining to race; any male youth who qualified for acceptance was admitted. The play tells the story of Templeton’s time at the university: It tells the story of how Wilson brought Templeton to live in his house because he couldn’t live with the other students; of how Templeton interacted with Wilson’s wife, who bristled at the fact that Templeton could attend the University but women could not; of how Wilson was grooming Templeton to be leader of Liberia, a colony set up in Africa by current and former slave owners for freed slaves. Most importantly, it tells the story of how Templeton was educated and taught to think critically, and how that ability led him to see Liberia for what it was, and to be true to his convictions about establishing a home for freed blacks in America. It concludes with Templeton reading his commencement address, “The Claims of Liberia”, which can be read here.
However, this play is not just about Templeton. During the course of the play, we see growth in all of the characters. As noted above, we see Templeton move from being an empty vessel, eager for a classic education, to a critical thinker, strong in his convictions. We see Rev. Wilson move from viewing Templeton just as a student to a tool for the success of Liberia, as well as a surrogate son. We also see a remarkable amount of growth in Jane Wilson, who moves from viewing Templeton as a dumb freed slave to respecting him as a man, and as he gains this respect, she learned to heal from her personal tragedies.
The production was extremely well acted. The director, Dan Bonnell, did an excellent job of drawing out the talents of his cast and turning them into three remarkable characters. As Templeton, Kareem Ferguson created a dignified character, deferential, proud, thoughtful, who you could see grow in his reasoning. He made the show; he was a delight to watch. Opposite him was Frank Ashmore as Rev. Robert Wilson. Ashmore’s Wilson was clearly driven: driven to prove that Templeton was not just a parroting ape but was a thinker—thinking in his own right based on the study of great philosophers in the original Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. But you could also see, from his performance, that Wilson cared about Templeton, and was personally hurt when Templeton’s reasoning led him to a different destiny than Wilson thought was right. This personification of Wilson is a testament to the acting abilities of Ashmore. Lastly, as Jane Wilson, Kathleen Mary Carthy serves as a catalyst. Although initially just a thorn in the side of Templeton, the second act is where she shines, and in doing so, provides more of an education to Templeton about the ultimate reasons behind the American Colonization Society and the formation of Liberia. Carthy’s portrayal of the character did an excellent job of presenting both the fire and the tenderness of the character.
[All actors are members of Actors Equity ]
Turning to the technical: David Potts’ scenic design of “Free Man of Color” was sparse using abstract elements to symbolize the Reverend’s house and fields, and with silhouette’d trees and buildings. This worked well in the Colony’s quasi-thrust environment; I can imagine how different the set would have been in the more proscenium-oriented Pasadena Playhouse. The lighting by Chris Wojcieszyn was colorful in its use of ambers and pinks, and did an excellent job of establishing mood. The sound, by Cricket S. Myers, was less amplification and more ambient sounds and effects, which were quite, umm, effective. The props (by MacAndME) and costumes (by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg) were suitably period (this isn’t a surprise; Schoenberg is the owner of AJS Costumes and Renaissance Dancewear). Leesa Freed was the Production Stage Manager.
“Free Man of Color” continues at The Colony Theatre until September 12, 2010. Tickets are available through the Colony boxoffice, and are usually up on Goldstar. The next production at The Colony Theatre is “Bell, Book and Candle”, running October 20–November 21, 2010.
Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Next weekend brings “The Glass Menagerie” at the Mark Taper Forum on September 11. The weekend of September 18 is Yom Kippur; no theatre is currently scheduled. The last weekend of September brings “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre. October is currently more open, with “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East ticketed for October 9. and “Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre ticketed for October 30. I should note that October 23 will be a Family Gaming Night at Temple Ahavat Shalom. , November will see “Bell, Book, and Candle” at The Colony Theatre on November 13; “Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum (November 10–December 22, Hottix on sale September 9, potential date November 21); and “Amadeus” at REP East (ticketed for November 27). December will bring “Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson (November 23–January 2; Hottix on November 2; planned date December 11). Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.
As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.