A little-known anecdote from America’s racial past is excitingly told in Charles Smith’s “Free Man of Color,” a Chicagoland Jefferson Award winner making its West Coast debut at the Colony. The saga of legally emancipated John Newton Templeton (c.1805-1851), the first African-American graduate of Ohio U., plays out like an historical mystery whose schemes and motivations are gradually uncovered to yield an inconvenient truth — contrary to myth, slavery’s opponents weren’t always supporters of those in or out of bondage.
Smith’s subtle strategies aren’t immediately detectable upon the 1828 Athens arrival of earnest John (Kareem Ferguson), at the sufferance of university president Rev. Robert Wilson (Frank Ashmore) and his goody wife (Kathleen Mary Carthy). We’re prepared for this righteous trio to bond, speechify and ultimately prevail over ignorant townsfolk as they educate the gifted young man, because it’s the right thing to do.
No way, not even close. From the moment the seethingly resentful Jane Wilson confronts John with a plantation matriarch’s contempt, Smith begins revealing more to her psychology than any strict humanitarian impulse. Cracks in the Wilsons’ marriage emerge as relevant to the student’s adventure.
There’s also more than meets the eye in the Reverend’s — or is it God’s? — plan for John, especially when factoring in the nominally beneficent American Colonization Society with its links to the African colony of Liberia. And inescapable is the animus of the university’s enrolled Southern gentlemen, eager to proclaim John’s link to “Mongo, the Trained Ape,” dressed-up primate star of a visiting circus.
A series of sizzlingly scripted encounters — not unlike the nightly debates prescribed for college students in those more rigorously intellectual times — calls into serious question which of the three protagonists is truly committed to helping the lad think for himself, and what the outcome will be when that goal and his diploma are finally within reach. “Free Man of Color” is one of those rare plays that becomes exponentially interesting as it goes along.
The production is spare yet handsome, helmer Dan Bonnell finding satisfying variety in blocking his thesps around David Potts’ set, which reflects “civilization” in the form of 19th-century silhouette art and the omnipresent Ohio wilderness. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes look authentic enough, without fully reflecting the clear-cut class differences of which the script keeps speaking.
“Free Man of Color” is beautifully cast. Ferguson effectively conveys Templeton’s four-year academic and emotional journey to full personhood, while Ashmore finds numerous levels within Wilson’s biblical patriarch persona. Carthy resorts too frequently to a cliched gesture of weariness (left hand on hip), though her command of Jane’s mercurial temperament never falters.
Yet all three want firmer command of their lines than was demonstrated on opening night, without which their innate authority and that of the text must fall short.