Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Charles Smith's history play, Freed, is often slow, repetitive, and creaky, but the story is of such importance and--at times--elegance, that these flaws can largely be overlooked. It tells the story of John Newton Templeton, a freed slave who, in 1828, became one of the first African Americans to graduate college. More importantly, it tells the story of a man who was content to learn what he was allowed, but who grew to demand that he be allowed to think for himself, rejecting the "Claims of Liberia" speech that he had written for the American Conservation Society, and refusing to be a puppet figurehead for their movement--which wanted to return these men to Liberia, Africa. (Damn the natives, too.) Most importantly, it tells the story of a man who, as of Monday, June 28, 2010, at 2:50 PM, does not appear in Wikipedia, and is therefore in danger of being revised out of our country's problematic past.

Lest that lead mislead you, Smith's play is as much about the man as it is about the story, and thanks to Sheldon Best, who plays Templeton, that's actually where it shines brightest. Best's experience working with the manic Vampire Cowboy Theatre Company (he played a talking teddy bear in their recent Alice in Slasherland) has only enhanced his range, and he's able to bring both a mature, thoughtful solemnity and a youthful, brash anger to the role. Both are needed, for while he starts out as an eager pupil content to rely on the kindness of his "rescuer," Robert Wilson (Christopher McCann), he slowly comes to realize that Wilson is not so much helping him as using him, a fact that's pointed out all too often by Wilson's bitterly oppressed wife, Jane (Emma O'Donnell). Moreover, since there are only three actors, the majority of the key moments are recounted as memories, and Best brightly relives those moments, from the way he trembles at the understanding of what "Mongo the Monkey" represents to the horror on his face when he recognizes his own unintentional actions against the "renegade" Native Americans in the area.

This is also where the play falters. Smith is forced, time and time again, to put offstage actions into onstage words, and this leads him to repeat himself. This is particularly the case with McCann, who reduces the role to such small-minded objectives that at times he's hardly distinguishable from the simple wooden wall that makes up Joseph J. Egan's set. It's not until he's spurred to anger toward the end of the play--which is also where he stops dropping his lines--that he acts with intent and reveals his narrow-mindedness as blind arrogance. O'Donnell, of the inconsistent accent, also suffers from information overload, although she's at least given an inequality of her own to fight against: She is not permitted to ride her own horse, as it would be unseemly, nor even to attend her husband's college. She's also allowed to speak to the tragic weight hanging in the background--the death of her son--and O'Donnell makes the most of this opportunity.

There's no denying that Freed is shackled by Smith's laborious pacing and his tendency to have characters over-explain themselves and their situations. But those chains cannot hold a story like this--or an actor as irrepressible as Best--down, and in some ways, the struggle of the actors against the play itself is almost as captivating as the subject matter.

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