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Theater review: 'Free Man of Color' at Colony Theatre

August 18, 2010 |  2:00 pm
400.FREEMAN-4 "Any colored man living in this century who says he hasn't been the object of hatred is either lying to you, or he hasn't been paying attention."

The truth in that remark, one of many blunt perceptions that inform "Free Man of Color," is hard to debate and, in the current climate, folly to ignore. Yet Charles Smith's acclaimed 2004 look at freed slave-turned-collegian John Newton Templeton goes beyond pungent cultural comment, which gives its solid West Coast premiere at the Colony Theatre an absorbing slow-burn impact.

A Joseph Jefferson award winner in its original Chicago production, "Free Man" examines Templeton (the excellent Kareem Ferguson), who graduated from Ohio University in 1828, only the fourth African American to earn a degree in the United States and the first in Ohio. However, historical footnotes are but the foundation upon which playwright Smith erects some intriguing questions about race, independent thought and the insidious gap between education and assimilation.

Using a framing device of a post-graduation speaking engagement, Smith has Templeton's abolitionist mentor, Rev. Robert Wilson (an assured Frank Ashmore) introducing his protégé. As Templeton assumes narrative duties, Smith dissolves to 1824, when university president Wilson brings Templeton to Athens, Ohio, to live in Wilson's house as a "student servant." His tacit reasons reflect institutional pragmatism and American Colonization Society paradoxes as much as religious conviction and moral stance, although Smith cagily doesn't give away too much too soon.

Actually, the early exchanges flirt with academic-theater staidness, despite Smith's skill at exposition and incorporating facts into dialogue. But with the entrance of Jane (the vivid Kathleen Mary Carthy), Wilson's starchy, antagonistic wife, "Free Man of Color" steadily becomes an engrossing morality play and humanizes history without patronizing it or condescending to us. 

The carefully assembled structure of situational clues, dry humor and psychological opacity pays off in Act 2, as one reversal of expectation and motive follows another. And "Free Man's" ultra-trenchant message of American duality trumpets forth during the climax, as Templeton tells Wilson, "Your God brought my people here in chains. My God wept while it was happening."

Director Dan Bonnell endows this beautifully crafted account with unerring spatial sense and a taut inner pulse. Designer David Potts provides an evocative silhouetted set -- Kara Phillips by way of 19th-century lithograph -- around which Cricket S. Myers' restrained sound, Chris Wojcieszyn's subtle lighting and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg's rough-hewn costumes are effective.

Bonnell's imposing cast is up to the assignment. Ferguson has a rare ability to connect to us without obviating, effortlessly inhabiting Templeton's growing awareness. Ashmore remains an old-school actor's actor, his tamped-down grandiosity exactly right, while Carthy's layered intensity, pitched somewhere between Elizabeth Wilson and Susan Sarandon, denotes an actress to be reckoned with. Some bobbled lines at the reviewed performance notwithstanding, their disciplined interaction fuels "Free Man of Color," though so thought-provoking and relevant a play is automatically its own incisive achievement.

-- David C. Nichols

"Free Man of Color," Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 12. $20-$42. (818) 558-7000. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Photo: Kareem Ferguson, Kathleen Mary Carthy and Frank Ashmore. Credit: Michael Lamont