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Theater Review: Free Man of Color's Vital History

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Kareem Ferguson, Kathleen Mary Carthy and Frank Ashmore in the Colony Theatre Company's West Coast Premiere production of "FREE MAN OF COLOR." | Photo by Michael Lamont


Kareem Ferguson, Kathleen Mary Carthy and Frank Ashmore in the Colony Theatre Company's West Coast Premiere production of "FREE MAN OF COLOR." | Photo by Michael Lamont
The prospect of a two-plus-hour history lesson might not seem like the motivation you’ve been waiting for to get off your sofa and into a theater seat this summer. But the story of John Newton Templeton, the fourth African American to graduate from college in the United States, presented in Charles Smith's Free Man of Color at the venerable Colony Theatre in Burbank is no mere reenactment of an early American civil rights episode. Rather, it's a truly dramatic clash of wills between three headstrong characters and their powerful, but irreconcilable, ideals of freedom in a world contaminated by manifold forms of slavery.

Having been emancipated as a child, Templeton (Kareem Ferguson) enters Ohio University in the 1820s and lives as a "student servant" of his benefactor, university president Robert Wilson (Frank Ashmore), and Wilson's wife Jane (Kathleen May Carty). Wilson is a sympathetic yet paternalistic figure in Templeton's life, genuinely encouraging the young man's prodigious academic talent and leadership potential, but always guiding him within the paradigm of his own benighted understanding of racial destiny. Jane, by contrast, is contemptuously hostile to Templeton, dismissing him with the nastiest of racial epithets, even as she urgently motivates him to seize opportunities denied her, as a woman, to assert his own individual identity and to forge his life's path unfettered by anyone else's plans for him.

While the play does get off to a bit of a slow, exposition-heavy start, its tone shifts away from educational dramatization before too long, especially once the players start arguing with each other. Obviously, the most noble and righteous person in any setting is never the most charismatic or compelling, and Templeton, the Free Man of Color himself, is no exception. If Ashmore and Carty end up carrying the show a little, it's not because Ferguson can't hold his own with them. It's just that playwright Smith endows Wilson and Jane with far more interesting weaknesses and personal blind spots for their actors to play with, while Templeton remains ever the straightforward "hero" of the story.

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Set designer David Potts frames director Dan Bonnell's largely well-paced action in a nicely expressionistic, nonrestrictive space.

Free Man of Color runs through Sunday, September 12. Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 3, Sunday matinees at 2. $20 to $40 full-price tickets available for all performances via the Colony web site. Discount tickets for some performances available on goldstar.com and lastage.org.