Free Man of Color

Victory Gardens Theater

There are two big risks to writing historical dramas: that you’ll end up with a pageant, full of research but lacking humanity, or that the history will prove superfluous to the story. Charles Smith in his fine new play Free Man of Color, now receiving its world premiere at Victory Gardens, avoids both problems, shaping a story forgotten by most into universal, almost mythic form.

Smith’s subject is John Newton Templeton, who in 1828 became one of the first African-Americans to graduate from an American college. The Reverend Robert G. Wilson, president of Ohio University, chose Templeton for this role and moved the young man into his home as a “student-servant” when Templeton was barred from campus housing. But Wilson’s motives weren’t strictly, or even primarily, selfless. As a founding member of the American Colonization Society, Wilson sought to groom Templeton as the leader of a movement to “return” American blacks to Africa, specifically Liberia. Instead Templeton became a teacher and the founder of a series of schools for African-American children.

From these facts Smith builds a densely textured three-character drama about Templeton’s search for identity, Wilson’s search for salvation and a substitute son, and the anguish afflicting Wilson’s wife, Jane, as she sees the young African-American given opportunities she herself has been denied. As Smith characterizes Templeton, he’s at once a hesitant Moses and a reluctant Christ: the son of a carpenter and a precocious scholar, he’s also the sole survivor of a massacre of black boys and thus susceptible to the idea that God saved him to lead his people’s exodus. Yet as played by the superb Anthony Fleming III, Templeton is first and foremost a complex human being struggling with the competing obligations of gratitude and principle, with individual morality and collective responsibility. He’s also a brilliant, ambitious, arrogant man compelled to hold his temper in the face of baiting by his fellow students, the reverend’s unconscious condescension, and Jane’s mysterious hostility. As the story evolves, Smith subtly balances its emotional and rational sides: Free Man of Color is too smart to be a tearjerker and too genuine to be a mere intellectual exercise. Though we share Templeton’s dislike of the unpleasant Mrs. Wilson, like him we understand that she’s the only person who tells him the truth.

Andrea J. Dymond’s staging is a model of clarity, drawing out Smith’s themes and metaphors without ever letting them clutter or obscure the story. Her work highlights the play’s exquisite craftsmanship: she gives the strong cast plenty of scope for characterization. Fleming combines strength and vulnerability in such appealing proportions (here especially but also in other shows) that it might be wise to see him before we lose him to New York or Hollywood. He handles the narration, which might have been a chore, with particular aplomb, concealing the exposition with a charming air of taking the audience into his confidence.

As Jane, Shelley Delaney is irritating but utterly persuasive, earning the audience’s sympathy as we gradually learn of the suffering she’s undergone. And Gary Houston as Wilson perfectly embodies the born-again former slaveholder who believes God speaks to him directly, which entitles him to dispose of other people’s lives. Houston’s voice and mannerisms suggest Joseph Cotton–and he also has some of Cotton’s opacity. In previous roles Houston has sometimes appeared cold or disengaged. But here he eloquently conveys the reverend’s concealed intentions and motivations–the complex mix of selfishness and selflessness that caused him to insert himself into Templeton’s life in the first place, then remain there.

Smith’s only significant failing is that, having made a reference or an allusion perfectly clear, he proceeds to explain it. Early on he has Templeton tell the tale of Mongo the ape, a circus act in town, who’s been dressed in a suit and taught to sit at a table and drink from a cup and eat with a spoon. Some locals deface the sign in front of the ape’s cage by crossing out Mongo’s name and inserting Templeton’s. So when Templeton reflects at the end of act one on having to perform for members of the American Colonization Society, there’s no need for him to say, “I couldn’t stop thinking about Mongo the ape”–and there’s really no need to repeat the line at the start of act two. (These reiterations probably appeared in early drafts, but now that construction is complete, the scaffolding should be taken down.) At the same time, there’s at least one major issue–Jane’s resentment over the suppression of women–that isn’t properly foreshadowed. A little attention to the subject in act one would eliminate the need for Shaw-length speechifying in act two.

The play also includes a few anachronisms, but it appears at least one present-day allusion is deliberate–and revealing. When Wilson asks Templeton his views on the impending presidential election, Wilson describes the competing candidates’ qualifications. “Andrew Jackson is a military man,” he says. And “John Quincy Adams–well, his daddy was president and some people think that means he’s qualified to be president, too.” The actor then had to pause and wait for the knowing applause to subside. (If our presidential election were held at Victory Gardens, it appears George W. Bush would soon have plenty of time to ride the range and clear the brush down in Crawford.)

Joe Cerqua’s original compositions and sound design enhance the production enormously, particularly his use of an instrumental version of “Amazing Grace,” composed by Templeton’s namesake, John Newton.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.