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Charles Smith's play about university president Robert Wilson and former slave John Newton Templeton is too didactic to be completely effective. logo
Sheldon Best, Christopher McCann,
and Emma O'Donnell in Freed
(© John Quilty)
In 1824, one-time slave John Newton Templeton (Sheldon Best) enrolled in Ohio University as the first African-American at the institution. He was brought there by school president Reverend Robert Wilson (Christopher McCann), whose motives, as presented in Charles Smith's intermittently effective but often didactic play Freed, now at 59E59 Theatres, were mixed at best.

Freed is one of those works where, rather than enact many of the scenes, the characters -- who also include Wilson's distant and bitter wife Jane (Emma O'Donnell) -- address the audience directly and exclamatorily. In the particular true-life tale unfolding on the Athens campus, they frequently tell -- instead of illustrate -- what transpires when accomplished educator Wilson brushes aside any expected reaction from his Kentucky and Virginia students or from intolerant locals in order to instruct the intelligent and eager Templeton.

Wilson's true purpose, however is revealed as far from altruistic. Believing he's heard God's word, he sees his mission as dispatching his charge to govern Liberia, where he expects freed American slaves to return under Templeton's leadership.

Underlying Smith's intention to recount Templeton's story is the playwright's desire to demonstrate the difference between education and rote training. He does this by having Templeton mention that shortly after he began his studies, a circus came through town with one of its attractions a trained ape called Mongo. Someone -- it's never indicated who -- obscures the name Mongo on a prominent sign and substitutes Templeton's name. The incident prompts Templeton to examine whether he ia submitting to training instead of achieving education's ultimate purpose: learning to think for oneself.

The play is at its best when the three characters confront each other; most notably in the second half, when Wilson dictates his inviolable decision to Templeton and Templeton challenges it, as well as when Jane has an especially harsh diatribe in which she likens her position as a woman to Templeton's as a black man. Less convincing, however, are the speeches delivered through the fourth wall.

Under Joe Brancato's stately direction, the cast members give notably dignified performances. Although they don't shy away from the occasional histrionic outburst, they each also maintain postures reminiscent of historical paintings. There's nothing destructively wrong with that, but the result stresses the lecture-circuit overtone from which Smith would probably wish his figures to be freed.

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