Theater Review: Free Man of Color's Vital History
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.