Charles Smith’s “Free Man of Color,” in its New York premiere at Stony Point’s Penguin Rep through Oct. 25, operates on several levels.
On its face, its the historical story of John Newton Templeton, a former slave who, in 1824, finds himself enrolled in the first graduating class of Ohio University, at the invitation of the university’s president, Robert Wilson.
The lone black man in a class of 10, alongside a Virginian and South Carolinian, Templeton is not permitted to live among his fellow students. Instead, he lives with Wilson and his wife, Jane, who is anything but welcoming.
This living arrangement makes “Free Man of Color” a triangle of interests, allegiances and motives, most of them clouded until the second act.
If one chose to — and we live in a free country — one might also view “Free Man of Color” as a commentary on current political affairs, although it was written five years before President Obama’s election.
Like the president, Templeton was the first to a milestone. (He was the fourth African-American to graduate from a U.S. university, but the first from Ohio U.)
Like the president, Templeton faced choices that would make him a lightning rod.
Like the president, Templeton had adversaries and allies who carried their standards, certain of their moral authority.
Add to all of this the conflicting factions of race, gender, religion, politics and free will, and you’ve got a full plate in Smith’s two-act drama, winner of Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Award for best new play.
Penguin’s artistic director Joe Brancato directs the cast of three:?Sheldon Best as Templeton; Emma O’Donnell as Jane Wilson and Penguin regular Tom Frey as Robert Wilson.
As the title character, Best has the lion’s share of work here, portraying the torn Templeton who is grateful for the opportunity, proud of his freedom, able to reason yet ever pragmatic.
At each obstacle, and there are plenty of obstacles, Best shows us a man navigating the rocky shoals in which he finds himself, wrestling with the choices that lie before him.
Before the evening is out, Templeton comes to question the motives of his benefactors, who envision him as the first governor of Liberia, a nation set aside for freed slaves.
As Robert Wilson, “the reverend,” Frey is strong and resolute, probing yet understanding. As the play progresses and Templeton begins to assert himself, Frey registers the change in the relationship with an understandable mix of confusion and anger, like a perturbed father.
(Frey was seen in Penguin’s season-closer “Woman in Black” last year and in “Two Pianos Four Hands” previously.)
While Smith’s script presents Jane as resentful, sullen and stilted in the opening act, Emma O’Donnell does a fine job of finding her character’s dynamic range in Act 2.
“What is her problem?” we wonder.
There are reasons for her resentment that speak to a woman’s place in Ohio society and to a glass ceiling long in the making.
“Free Man of Color” comes to a satisfying payoff, one that is thought-provoking and stimulating. It tackles thorny issues of our day seen through the prism of a story that is nearly two centuries old.
Joseph J. Egan’s simple but effective set is a wooden platform that extends upstage and connects seamlessly with a back wall. It looks like the open book that Templeton’s life becomes. Simple chairs and benches turn the playing space into a classroom or the sitting room of the Wilson home.
Patricia E. Doherty’s costumes evoke the time and set our minds back. Martin E. Vreeland’s lighting plot effectively carves out playing areas.
As a piece of theater, “Free Man of Color” delivers on the promise of a tale well told.
Now on stage weekends through Oct. 25, it brings to a close Penguin’s excellent and diverse 32nd season of theater in a converted hay barn on Crickettown Road.
From Tom Dudzick’s charming (and extended) “Our Lady of South Division Street” to Pat Hazell’s nostalgic “The Wonder Bread Years” and Carter Lewis’ comic “Women Who Steal,” Peguin has managed to keep their heads above water in a perilous economic climate while, as Brancato likes to say, “stirring the gray matter a bit.”
If you go
What: “Free Man of Color”
When: Through Oct. 25. Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 4 and 8; Sundays at 2.
Where: Penguin Rep, 7 Crickettown Road, Stony Point.
Tickets: $32. Discounts for groups and those 30 and younger.
Photo by Kerwin McCarthy: Sheldon Best is John Newton Templeton in “Free Man of Color” at Penguin Rep through Oct. 25.