nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
June 13, 2010
John Newton Templeton, the emancipated slave who is the central character in Penguin Rep Theatre's production of Freed, has several problems. It is 1824 and Templeton has enrolled at Ohio University, making him the first African American accepted to a major university in the Midwest United States and the fourth such student in the history of the country. One problem is that the town doesn't want him. An emancipated slave is as good as an enslaved one in their eyes and one they consider uppity is even worse. As a reminder of his place in the pecking order, they vandalize a poster of a monocle-wearing, tuxedoed ape with his name.
Another problem is that Jane, the wife of his benefactor—Reverend Robert G. Wilson—is none too thrilled about him either. While the reasons behind her anger are initially unclear—I'm not giving anything away though by saying they have nothing to do with race—from the moment of their introduction, Jane makes it perfectly clear that Templeton is both an unwanted and unwelcome addition to their lives.
The Reverend Wilson seems like the perfect man to bridge the gap between the two. As president of the university, he wields considerable influence over the town that depends on his school for survival. A devoted husband who believes in the word of God and a progressive man who considers Templeton equal in status to his Caucasian students, he sees great promise in Templeton and encourages him to think creatively and independently.
But his progressivism comes with a tinge of condescension. Wilson litters his conversations with phrases like, "That's not an answer, John. That's circular logic based upon the original premise" and "That's a very uninformed and uneducated position." He becomes defensive when his intellect is challenged. ("Are you trying to be insolent?") And he is unable to take a simple compliment when his wife thanks him for allowing a circus to set up their tents ("I didn't do it to make anyone happy...and would appreciate it if you would stop thanking me for it at every turn. Every time I hear you say it, it puts a bad taste in my mouth. ") By placing these examples early in the play, playwright Charles Smith makes it perfectly clear that Wilson cares less about educating than training Templeton to think correctly.
There are several conflicts percolating throughout Freed—from Wilson's claim that God has chosen Templeton as the man to govern Liberia to Templeton's attempts to please his mentor and define himself as a man, to Jane's struggles with the few opportunities provided to her as a woman—but the strongest, most visceral comes in the form of Wilson's struggle against the limitations of his own intellect. He behaves as though the power of his intellect directly connects him to God and, therefore, gives him the authority to speak on his behalf. The result is a character so arrogant, he is unable to empathize with those he loves or compromise to their point of view. Christopher McCann nails this arrogance perfectly; there were times in the play I wanted to rush the stage and shake him awake.
Smith has written a smart script which is full of information about the age in which it takes place. He's especially attuned to the Gordian knot the United States tied itself into with slavery. It contains lucid characters with strong points of view that are keenly aware of their positions in society. Smith script clearly slants toward Templeton's point of view and this dilutes the play's tensions. Ultimately, though, the dramatic force comes not from what we learn about the issue but from watching the characters come to conclusions we already agree with.