What an abomination of mankind and to mankind is prejudice and discrimination against other humans in order to maintain the privilege of a power elite. Not only does this powerful play by American playwright Charles Smith elucidate some of the issues involved, but it does so via a poignant peek into a fascinating page of American history as illustrated by the interaction of three people, each trapped in different ways by circumstance or indoctrination.
In 1828, John Newton Templeton was the first black graduate of the University of Ohio (and only the fourth in the US), some 40 years before the emancipation of the slaves. Ohio was free of slavery, and Templeton was championed by the deeply committed Presbyterian President of the University at the time, the Revd. Robert Wilson, who, with his wife Jane, took Templeton in, and supported him through his studies.
Nevertheless, while Templeton, a very intelligent and articulate student, grappled with the inevitable difficulties his race posed for him, Mrs Wilson was equally discriminated against, as she was not allowed to study or set foot in the hallowed halls of academia because she was a woman! At the same time, in spite of his generosity, apparent colour-blindness and dedication to Templeton, the Revd Wilson was also caged by his tunnel-visioned commitment to send him and his like back to Africa (in fact to Liberia), to keep America white, and his absolute blindness to the plight of the native Americans.
Shedrick Yarkpai (who, ironically, was born in Liberia) as Templeton is appealing, dignified and resolute. David Roach as Wilson shows the quandaries embodied in the American culture then, and sadly, largely now, with energy and conviction, as he demonstrates the contradictions and hypocrisy of a society which espoused the ideals that “all (men) are created equal” while living the opposite. Lyn Wilson as Jane Wilson convincingly portrays the tragedy and anger of a mother who has lost three sons, and who is severely constrained in a male dominated society simply because of her gender.
These three seasoned actors do an excellent job of posing the conflicts, and the debates, and the struggles that were going on then – and which to some extent still persist – which are both personal and societal. They do so on an effectively simple raked set by David Roach showing the two worlds of Africa and America, echoing the two sides of the multiplicity of dilemmas the play poses.
This play, directed by Rob Croser, and written as a commission to celebrate the bi-centenary of Ohio University, is a compelling contemplation not only on intellectual debates such as training vs. education, but also about freedom and oppression, paternalism and nurture, principle and compromise. Charles Smith, who came out to Adelaide for this premiere performance has produced a powerful, stimulating and thought provoking piece. It travels well to Australia, where many of the issues are only too familiar, and it should soon grace stages in other states.
Independent Theatre presents
FREE MAN OF COLOR
by Charles Smith
Directed by Rob Croser
Part of the 2009 Adelaide Fringe Festival
Venue: Odeon Theatre, Norwood
Dates: March 14, 19, 20, 21, 25, 26, 27 at 7.30 pm, March 15 at 4 pm, March 18, 24 at 6.30 pm
Prices: $30, Conc $25, Fringe Benefits $17