Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Theater review: Free Man of Color at DeSoto Corner Theatre
This play provides a map for how we could view current events.
In 1824, the new president of Ohio University enrolled a young Freedman, a slave freed by his masters, to begin university studies. He became the first black man to graduate from a university in the Northwest Territory, and the fourth in the United States. It was not a popular move, but Robert G. Wilson, a pastor educator, fought resistance in the "free" state of Ohio and enrolled John Newton Templeton.
For Templeton, already educated more than most slaves because of a benevolent master, this was a chance to prove black children could learn. For Wilson, Templeton was an answer to a dream of solving the "slave problem" by repatriating blacks to Africa. For Jane Wilson, Robert's wife, young Templeton reminded her that women had fewer rights than slaves. While Templeton pursued his education, she couldn't even step into the halls of the college where her husband was president.
Free Man of Color is the play that tells their story. Written by Charles Smith in 2004, it won the Jefferson Award for Outstanding New Work. DeSoto's African American Repertory Theater (AART) brought Free Man of Color (playing at the Corner Theatre through February 26) to DFW. AART's mission is "to produce engaging, culturally diverse theater from an African American perspective while educating our community on African American history and our arts." This is a big mission and they met it head-on with Free Man of Color.
This was Regina Washington's first production as director. She is executive director and co-founder at AART. She had a number of challenges with this script. First, the play is a dialog and monologue story. The script required her to create interest and keep the audience focused on the text with no compelling stage action. She did that with a single, simple set designed by Bob Lavallee, supportive and unobtrusive lighting by Dave Tenney, and a sound design by Vince McGill that set the tone for the 1820s. These choices allowed dialogs to stand out.
Another technical challenge was how to keep interest during long monologues. The design team created scrim screens like windows in the rear walls of the set, and scrim actors played out scenes behind the screens. Through the actors, these impressionistic scenes provided a visual bridge that kept the audience focused on the text. The scrim actors, from Duncanville and DeSoto high schools and Booker T. Washington School of the Performing Arts, were acted by Stephen Smith, Kameron Marable, and Ursula Walker. They should be commended.
Costumer Rhonda Gorman unified this play with sets of believable clothing for the 1820s. Costumes were important as the characters argued about the clothing John Templeton should wear as he tried to integrate into civilized society, a metaphor for the harsh question in the play.
The script contained frequent side-narrations by Templeton, which pulled him out of the scene for exposition. As John Newton Templeton, Christopher Dontrelle Piper shifted comfortably between dialog and narration, and Director Washington integrated the narrations into the stage action and dialog.
Free Man of Color has three characters that show many shades of inner conflict, each arguing a point of view on the question of whether blacks could be "educated like whites" or "trained like animals." This play was not about slavery, but rather about the fundamental acceptance of blacks as humans. Even in the free states of the North, racism was part of life and they struggled with the question: could black people integrate into white American society or should they be repatriated to Africa. Abraham Lincoln struggled with this question before his Emancipation Proclamation. It was an arduous debate that raged over 40 years.
Robert Wilson, played by Vince Davis, deals with this question in his religious beliefs and sides with the American Colonization Society, which created the colony of Liberia in West Africa and sent many free blacks to populate it. Wilson's struggle to bring this young man to be the leader of Liberia was highly personal, not only for political and religious reasons, but because Templeton lived in Wilson's house. He became a surrogate for Wilson's late sons. His anguish in the closing minutes as he sees his dream unravel was powerful.
Jane Wilson, played by Mary-Margaret Pyeatt, boldly presented the harsh reality of the white perception of blacks as non-humans; boldly because this view is foreign to most Americans today, yet it had to be argued powerfully to make the play work. She also showed the inevitable comparison between slavery of blacks and "slavery" of women. It was 1841 when women were first allowed to graduate from an American college. But more importantly for her inner struggle, Jane had to carry a mother's grief with the loss of her sons and she did this with a look in her eyes, a vocal tone and physical gestures that made the deep pain visible beyond words.
For Templeton, Piper created a subtle mix of a boy who was educated more than most whites and believed he could surpass white expectations at the University, but was smart enough to know the limitations he must face. His conflict was to choose a path between two painful options: graduate and move to Liberia or stay in America and not fulfill his dream. Piper showed this conflict, though his struggle seemed more intellectual than emotional at times. But he felt the growing weight on his shoulders as he realized what was expected of him, and we felt that.
A final challenge in this script was finding a theme. There were numerous competing themes: slavery vs. abolition, integration vs. repatriation, racism, treating people as non-humans, parent's loss of a child, women's equality. All were valid conflicts and any one could be a theme which could change the dynamics between characters. It was a tightrope to allow competing themes to emerge while unifying the story with a predominant theme. The production had to find a primary vision and align everyone behind it, and I did not see that.
There is a message. This story is repeating itself even today. There is a modern struggle between competing political, religious, and racial groups and we see the devaluation of humans based on race or religion around the world. This play provides a map for how we could view these current events.
This was an enjoyable if thought-provoking evening. The play deserved so much more audience than it had opening night. AART treated Free Man of Color with respect. It was an outstanding first time directing effort and the acting was exceptional. African American Repertory Theater told this story with class and distinction and it deserves to be seen.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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