Review by Tulis McCall
(18 Jun 2010)
Well finally! Someone who knows how to write a history play without making you feel like he is pounding you on the head with a 2x4.
Freed is the story of John Newton Templeton (Sheldon Best), a Free Negro who in 1824 was recruited by Robert Wilson (Christopher McCann), so that Templeton’s mind could be given the opportunities for which it thirsted. Wilson was the president of Ohio University, which at that time, had no restrictions regarding race. Any male who qualified was admitted. (Oberlin, the first college to admit women, did not officially do so for another 25 years. Oiy….)
The tiny factoid that Wilson omitted was that he had hopes that the ACS (American Colonization Society) would choose Templeton as the man to lead his people back “home” to Africa to the country of Liberia. Wilson revealed these facts bit by bit, and initially Templeton swallowed them whole. The fly in the ointment was in the form of Jane Wilson (Emma O’Donnell) who not only knew that the ACS founders were all former slave holders, but knew about the deeper reasons that her husband wanted Templeton to be the chosen one.
The fly in the ointment may suffer the mess, but in the end will ruin the ointment. Templeton refused the appointment to Liberia and created his own life as an educator in Pittsburgh. He and Wilson remained friends.
What is remarkable here is the warp and woof of Charles Smith’s writing. This is accompanied by the very firm direction provided by Joe Brancato. Brancato made the choice to trust the writing in such a pure way that the characters are never given props. Look ma – no hands! Oh, there are a few here and there, but they are not memorable and, in fact, not needed. So clean is this script that the characters do just fine speaking to one another – you know, like people do.
The dialogue takes the form of simmering debates. A word is dissected and revealed to have deep roots. An invitation to ride becomes a discussion of the rights of white women compared to those of a man, even a black one. A vision of a new land becomes a treatise on the definition of home and a person’s right of self-determination. To Smith’s credit he keeps the ball rolling throughout. We never bog down in fact because Smith shows us how the fact affects the character. History becomes a series of the needs and wants and experiences of these three people. Smith understands that without these ingredients we just won’t care. i.e. - The announcement of 20 billion dollars from BP vs. a man saying he may lose his fourth generation business or a Congressional testimony vs. an oil soaked pelican struggling to stand. Which gets you?
The performances deliver the goods in this production, although I hope that Best and O’Donnell will both relax just a touch more and that McCann will let go of over articulation. A little more trust and a little less trepidation is in order.
This is a fascinating evening of theatre on many levels. Production quality, story telling, and of course the facts. We have an astonishing collection of untold histories – all of us. Uncovering them is a frontier that constantly beckons. Congratulations to Charles Smith for accepting the invitation.