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Biography done with integrity

August 21, 2010|By James Petrillo
(Michael Lamont )

Oh, the difficult task of bringing the life story of someone pivotal in world history to the stage or screen. Why are the end results so routinely repetitive in structure or endlessly boring in execution?

Well, too many biographies spend so much time on the "big" important events in their subject's life, they leave out the more intimate, reflective moments. We trudge through the early years, the formative years, the married years, the sick years and so on until death.

Charles Smith's play "Free Man of Color" manages to tell the entire thought-provoking story of John Newton Templeton while focusing merely on a few crucial years at college. The West Coast premiere of this unique kind of biography just opened at the Colony Theatre in Burbank.

Directed by Dan Bonnell, this fascinating attempt at explaining the importance of a single man's life eschews the tired trappings of most historical dramas. Playwright Smith has jettisoned all the expected scenes like childhood flashbacks and deathbed confessions, concentrating instead on the brief time during the 1820s when Templeton was poised to become the governor of Liberia.


Templeton (Kareem Ferguson) was only the fourth African American to earn a college degree in the United States, but the first in Ohio. Born in 1805, Templeton's family was freed from a South Carolina plantation in 1813 before moving to Adams County, Ohio.

We first meet Templeton when the president of Ohio University, Robert Wilson (Frank Ashmore), helps him enroll in 1824. Unlike most colleges of that era, any male regardless of race who qualified for acceptance was admitted. Of course, that didn't mean every person in town wouldn't have something to say about it.

The uneducated masses in the neighborhood are obviously against Templeton attending Ohio University. His white classmates not only refuse to share a dorm room with him, they aren't even comfortable letting him live anywhere in the same building. And when Robert Wilson offers room and board in exchange for help around the house, his wife Jane (Kathleen Mary Carthy) is immediately put off by Templeton's very existence.

It soon becomes clear that Jane Wilson has much deeper issues with Templeton's presence in her home than merely the color of his skin. The Wilsons lost three boys in unfortunate ways before any of them reached adulthood. Templeton's youthful energy stirs up long dormant feelings about each of the tragic losses the couple shared but never dealt with in any lasting manner.

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