“Thirty-four years before the end of slavery, I stood before my graduating class and wondered about my soul.”

The speaker is John Newton Templeton, a young ex-slave and the first man of color to attend Ohio University—over three decades before the Emancipation Proclamation.

Templeton’s story comes to vivid life in Free Man Of Color, Charles Smith’s enlightening, award-winning bioplay now getting its West Coast Premiere in an absorbing production at the Colony Theatre in Burbank.

Though Ohio was in 1824 (and had always been) a free state, half of the then 24 United States were slave states, and the Ohio University campus was hardly the friendliest of environments for the nineteen-year-old Templeton on his arrival.  Not allowed to be housed with white students, many of whom were scions of wealthy Southern plantation owners, young John became a “student servant” in the home of university president Reverend Robert Wilson and his wife Jane.

Wilson’s motivations in bringing John Templeton to Ohio University were pure—up to a point.  He truly did believe in Templeton’s ability to achieve academic results every bit the equal of his white classmates.  At the same time, as we learn fairly soon on, his goal was never to see John integrated into American society.  Rather, he planned for the young scholar to leave the U.S. and become a political leader in Liberia, a new African colony founded and colonized by freed American slaves and aided by the American Colonization Society, a group whose members included slave owners and abolitionists alike.

Smith’s drama takes us from the day of John Newton Templeton’s arrival in Athens, Ohio to his graduation ceremony four years later, years during which John went from an already well-spoken nineteen-year-old to a considerably “older and wiser” college grad.  As to whether the young African American ever fulfilled what Wilson called his “divine calling” to lead Liberia—well for that, you’ll have to see Free Man Of Color, the latest in a growing string of terrific Colony Theatre productions.

John Newton Templeton, Robert Wilson, and Jane Wilson are brought to three-dimensional life by Kareem Ferguson, Frank Ashmore, and Kathleen Mary Carthy under the confident direction of Dan Bonnell, whose previous Colony assignment, last Fall’s Better Angels, was another fascinating glimpse back at Nineteenth Century America.

Ferguson’s luminous performance as John charms us and wins us over from the first words of his graduation speech. For audience members who grew up watching Gone With The Wind, it’s a revelation to hear a young early Nineteenth Century African American speak with the crystal clear diction which Ferguson gives Templeton and the erudition of the lines Smith has written for him. Ferguson’s performance brings to life all of John’s grit and his self-assuredness, and the actor’s confrontation scenes with Ashmore and Carthy positively crackle with dramatic friction. 

Ashmore combines equal parts gruffness and parental warmth as Reverend Wilson, a man whose motives for bringing John to Ohio University are neither as pure or as straightforward as originally appears to be the case.   The marvelous Carthy plays Jane as a woman born a century and a half too soon, and as Free Man Of Color progresses, her frustration at seeing Templeton afforded the education her gender denies her is palpable. Neither Ashmore nor Carthy shies away from showing their characters’ more negative aspects, and in fact, it seems for a while that young John is living under the roof of (pardon my French) an out-and-out jerk and his bitch of a wife. Fortunately, playwright Smith and these two fine actors allow us to slowly discover—and understand—the reasons behind Reverend and Mrs. Wilson’s seemingly less-than-Christlike qualities.

Scenic designer David Potts has created a multi-locale set with the look of the era’s popular silhouette art.  Chris Wojcieszyn’s beautiful lighting design accentuates the play’s dramatic and intimate moments.  Costumes by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg have just the right “distressed” look of authentic period garb. Cricket S. Myers’ sound design is, as always, just right for each scene as are MacAndME’s properties design and set dressing. Lessa Freed is production stage manager.

Theatergoers who think of U.S. history as dry and tedious will be quickly won over by Free Man Of Color and its trio of actors. When Reverend Wilson ends the play with the simple words, “I present to you John Newton Templeton,” few in the audience will have failed to be entertained and moved by this American hero’s inspiring life story.

Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
August 14, 2010
                                                                           Photos: Michael Lamont


Comments are closed.