Friday, February 11, 2011

Free Man of Color

FREE MAN OF COLOR offers revelations at Ensemble

Why was Roderick J. McDavis, the president of Ohio University, sitting in the Notre Dame College's Performing Arts Center on a Thursday night? As he explained in his between-acts comments at FREE MAN OF COLOR, he was in attendance to pay tribute to OU professor Charles Smith, who wrote the award prize winning play. In addition, he wanted to recognize John Newton Templeton, the play's protagonist, who in 1828, 35 years before the end of slavery, became one of the first black men in the nation to graduate college.

FREE MAN OF COLOR is a two-act play which examines the life of Templeton, a freed slave, who developed a close and unique relationship with Reverend Robert Wilson, the third President of OU, and his wife, Jane. Wilson hand-picked Templeton to be the first leader of what was to become the country of Liberia, which was selected by a group of ministers to be the place where US freed slaves could return to Africa and live in freedom.

Although Templeton excels in most areas of study, he turns out to be quite different from what Wilson had wanted, needed, and expected. A great deal of his education takes place outside of the classroom in conversations with Jan Wilson, which covered such topics as the rights of women, what it really means to be free and being true to one's self.

Smith's play, which was a wise choice for Ensemble Theatre to stage during Black History month, probes how Reverend Wilson was forced to reevaluate his abolitionist views and Templeton is forced to examine the reasons he was chosen to be the "first," while asking whether a freed slave is really free? It reveals a complex human being struggling with competing moral obligations of gratitude and principle, with individual morality and collective responsibility.

Interestingly, when playwright Smith began hunting through Ohio University's archives for details of Templeton's life, he found only a few documents. It took a great deal of detective work to flesh out the details. As he states, "Templeton's story is a critical piece of history. I hope the audience will think about things in ways they had never thought about before." From this writer's standpoint, that hope is fully realized.

Ensemble's production is under the direction of Tony Sias. Though there is some distracting staging, such as characters not facing each other in interactions, and some distracting lighting effects, which make the actors look like they are playing hopscotch from one light spot to another, the author's intentions come across.

The acting is generally good, though the needed southern accents keep coming and going. Tall, willowy Antuane Rogers is excellent as the young John Newton Templeton. His strain and pain, including one scene where his tears flow freely, is clearly present.

Diane Mull, who, at times, becomes too shrill in displaying the frustrations of Jan Wilson, seemed to grow into the role. She develops a meaningful characterization in the second act, after a weak first stanza.

Jeffrey Grover (Robert Wilson) tries hard, but lacks nuance. At times he probes into the character, but much of his mood swings and realizations don't seem internally motivated. This is a character of zeal, of purpose, and, at the end, a man who is forced to face that he can't enslave Templeton and make him into a servant who acts based on Wilson's dictates. That dawning reality, which is vital to the play's dénouement, isn't clearly developed.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: FREE MAN OF COLOR is a play well worth seeing. It gets an acceptable production at Ensemble Theatre.