Review by Mark Lowry and Photos by Buddy Myers (TheaterJones.com)
After his graduation, John Newton Templeton—one of the first freed slaves in America to receive a college degree—gave a lecture at Ohio University called “The Claims of Liberia.” In it, he spoke of a new country in West Africa where former slaves would be sent to restart their lives in their native land.
“Where can they go, but to Africa?” he orated. “If they stay among us, the policy of the country, which has fixed upon them the stigma of a degraded caste, will inflict upon them duties unequal and unjust in their character, while it denies them the slightest pretensions to an equality of rights.”
That was in the early 1830s, three decades before the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s amazing how dead-on he was, considering what would happen in this country through the rest of the 19th and most of the following century, culminating with the Civil Rights Movement.
How Templeton became a student at Ohio University and built up to that speech is the subject of Charles Smith’s 2004 play Free Man of Color, receiving a first-rate production in its Metroplex debut at African American Repertory Theater, directed by Regina Washington.
Templeton (played by Christopher Dontrell Piper), was born on a South Carolina cotton plantation, and his family was freed when he was a boy. They moved to the free state of Ohio. He was allowed to enter Ohio University and was taken in by university president Robert Wilson (Vince Davis, in top form) and, less reluctantly, his wife Jane Wilson (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt), because blacks weren’t allowed in the dormitories.
What follows at first feels like an overly didactic play in which there are discussions of divine right, the darker motives of the American Colonization Society and abolitionists, indentured servitude vs. slavery, and the idea that people with good intentions aren’t always as selfless as they want to appear.
Templeton learns to read the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek, and although he gets room and board with the president, he works for it. He may be studying at a prestigious university in a free state, but he still suffers intense racism, such as comparisons to the caged gorilla in the traveling circus. And Liberia may be a new hope for freed slaves, but what does it really say about the members of the ACS who want to send blacks back to the land from which they were violently taken? In other words, get them out of this country.
But this turns out to be more than just a historical play with heady ideas, thanks to vividly written characters and Washington’s skill with keeping the proceedings moving when they could easily be mired in intellectual debate.
One of the first signs that Smith has done his job as a dramatist is the scene in which Jane, who is initially resistant and even cruel toward Templeton, talks to him as if he’s of a “degraded caste” while she cleans the study with a feather duster.
The scenes between Templeton and Jane become the glue that holds it all together, thanks to beautiful character development by Piper and Pyeatt. We hear about the death of her three sons and the general fear of the area Indian tribes. And despite her bitterness that a freed slave has more status than she does as a white wife to a man in a powerful position, she grows to respect and care about Templeton.
Africans were indeed treated horribly after being brought here, but women would still have a long way to go before they weren’t treated like second-class citizens. The native Americans weren’t even given that much respect.
Some of the stories they speak of are acted out, silently, by scrim actors (three students from area high schools), on a detailed and clean set by Bob Lavallee. This adds another layer of dramatization and keeps it from being staid.
For years, Piper has been a pleasure to watch, as he effortlessly disappears into his character. This is his best work yet. There’s a lot of internal conflict with this character, and Piper plays that royally.
To boot, this production is AART’s best show to date.