FREE MAN OF COLOR: The Story of One Man’s Search for the True Meaning of Freedom
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Pine Camp Arts and Community Center, 4901 Old Brook Rd, Richmond, VA 23227
Performances: February 8th, 9th, 10th, 15th, 16th, 17th @8:00pm; February 10th, 17th @4:00pm; February 14th @10:00am
Ticket Prices: $10 for Groups of 10 or more; $12 for Students and Seniors; $15 General Admission
“Your people will never live in harmony with white people in America.” These words might have been taken from the latest news coverage of white supremacists in the local news. But on stage at Pine Camp Arts and Community Center, they were spoken by Reverend Robert Wilson, President of Ohio University in the 1820s, acting, as he believed, under direct orders from God.
Robert Wilson, played by actor Ken Moretti, is one of three characters in Charles Smith’s very literate and very relevant play about John Newton Templeton (Jamar Jones), the first African American to graduate from Ohio University – 35 years before slavery was officially abolished in the USA. Free Man of Color, first published and produced in 2004) is not just a recounting of yet another African American first – it is a thought provoking look at an American figure most of us have never heard of, an examination of the institution of slavery from an entirely different perspective, a revelation of the conflict and contradictions that complicate the conjunction of black freedom and women’s rights, and – to paraphrase director Toney Q. Cobb’s notes – it seeks the meaning of freedom, rather than the definition.
Most would think John is privileged to be brought into the home of Wilson, a university president, and his wife Jane (Mara Barrett) to work as a student servant while studying for a liberal arts degree. But wait, not so fast. John is immediately met with hostility from Jane, who appears to have a deep disdain for John and is not averse to calling him stupid or even a nigger. “I hated that woman,” John tells the audience in a narrative aside. “Every time I looked at her, I could visualize my fingers wrapped around her throat.” Many in the audience at Saturday’s matinee felt the same way, and I felt a great respect for Barrett who executed a flawless performance of her hateful role in front of an all-black audience.
There is more to Jane’s character than we see at first glance. As the story unfolds, we learn that she is not allowed to ride her beloved horse, because ladies are not allowed to straddle a horse, but may only ride sidesaddle – an inefficient if not impossible proposition in rough terrain. Furthermore, Jane, the wife of the president of the university, cannot set foot into a classroom or lecture hall at the university in 1824, again, because she is a woman. Yet here is John, a freedman, an ex-slave, living in her home, enrolled in the university, and riding her horse.
Jones, who appeared in last year’s Richmond Triangle Players production of Choir Boy and spends his days portraying enslaved and free black people in Colonial Williamsburg, initially appears to portray John as the perfect negro – polite, docile, compliant. But that is only one side of this multi-faceted character. As he learns the difference between training and education, Jones’ character shows his benefactor, Rev. Wilson, and the audience that while one may be trained and manipulated to follow, he has been educated to reason for himself. The decisions he makes may not please his mentor, but he is adamant that “if I don’t look after my soul, no one else will.” Jones is fully committed to this role, and entirely believable.
Moretti also gives a fully fleshed, nuanced performance. As Rev. Wilson, Moretti renders a heart-felt rendition of “Amazing Grace” that is marred only by the realization that his character is using the song to justify white supremacy. All three actors are well cast in their roles.
Free Man of Color is an important work that addresses serious issues and raises important questions. Free Man of Color addresses the issues of slavery and women’s rights, but also brings up the treatment of native Americans and indigenous people in Liberia, which was home to a settlement of expatriated black Americans and it examines the motives of the American Colonization Society. A group created in 1816, purportedly to assist free blacks and former slaves emigrate to Liberia, to our contemporary eyes, it bears a striking resemblance to white supremacist organizations and ideologies.
In two acts, performed over approximately 2 hours and twenty minutes, including one intermission, we are taken on a journey that leaves us stunned, angry, outraged, and hopeful – sometimes all at once. Jones, Moretti, and Barrett work well as an ensemble, with only a few stumbles, and Cobb’s subtle yet intentional direction keeps the audience engaged. Free Man of Color is excellent theater and marks a new high for the Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company and for Toney Q. Cobb as director.
The Pine Camp venue offers challenges any theater company’s technical crew. One is that all sets must be free standing, and here Artistic Director Margarete Joyner has done an amazing job in creating the Wilson’s home office. She is listed on the program not only as Artistic Director and Costume Designer – a job she does with the eye of a fashion designer – but also as Set Designer and Master Carpenter! The lights were designed by Geno Brantley and the sound (including subtle and perfectly placed touches of period music, the sounds of a horse galloping, and more) was designed by Pamela Archer Shaw.
- FYI: Here is a link to the actual commencement speech delivered in 1828 by the real John Newton Templeton. “The Claims of Liberia” is mentioned several times in the play, but Jones/John never actually delivers it.
- NOTE & SPOILER ALERT: While John was offered an important position in the colony of Liberia, a bit of research indicates that the Edward Roye mentioned at the end of the play was actually the fifth president of Liberia, not the governor. It seems that Charles Smith may have taken some artistic license with the historical facts, but there is plenty of substance – not “fake news.”
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photos & Posters Courtesy of Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company