Former Slave Enlightens Pious Hosts, Skips Liberia: John Simon
‘Freed,” by Charles Smith, is a remarkable work with much to say; it deserves to be seen by anyone justly disappointed with most other new offerings off- Broadway and on.
“Freed” is based on key events in the life of John Newton Templeton, the first American black to graduate (from Ohio University) with an advanced college degree in the Midwest, and one of only four anywhere way back in 1828. An ex-slave, he was to found and head, in Pittsburgh, the first school for black children, as well as become a journalist and political activist.
This is not some facile piece of liberal agit-prop. It is realistic and highly literate, equally gripping the mind and the heart. Here is that rare play to provocatively address such issues as history, politics, philosophy, education, religion, racism, feminism, freedom and morality, and do so without preaching, dice-loading or loose verbiage.
Templeton was a young man who learned Latin, Greek and Hebrew in Bible studies and was picked by the Reverend Robert Wilson, president of Ohio U., to achieve a graduate degree. He stayed with the Wilsons, because students in the dormitories would not share with a black.
There are other hurdles. Mrs. Jane Wilson, though enlightened in other ways, is a bit of a racist. John is to do some service, but not to be a mere houseboy, an unpaid servant. Wilson himself, liberal enough in some ways, keeps pushing for the will of God as the liberator, allegedly telling him that John must go off to be the first president of Liberia.
John doesn’t want to. He is preparing a lecture for admission to the Literary Society on “Why should ex-slaves go back to a land that sent them into slavery in the first place,” and, to Wilson’s surprise, wants to be paid for his services and, even more important, repay Wilson for room and board.
Slowly he wins over Mrs. Wilson, who comes to realize that racism is kin to patriarchalism, and, by courageous resistance, compels Wilson to fathom that all other freedoms are worthless without the freedom of choice, which includes the freedom to interpret the will of God.
There are only three characters in this admirably and economically structured play, but along with references to plentiful others, they richly evoke a conflicted world.
Joe Brancato has superbly directed Sheldon Best (John), Christopher McCann, and Emma O’Donnell -- all of whom delineate important evolutions with subtle grace -- on a simple but effective set by Joseph J. Egan, with persuasive costumes by Patricia E. Doherty, and versatile lighting by Martin E. Vreeland.
Through July 3 at 59 E. 59th St. Information: +1-212-279- 4200; http://www.ticketcentral.com Rating: ***
The exact antithesis is to be seen in the Rattlestick Theater production of Dan Klores’s “Little Doc,” a memory play crying out for oblivion.
Klores, successful in other fields, has not the least talent for playwriting, as this inept, even incomprehensible, attempt about his Brooklyn youth -- involving various addictions and infighting for seven nonentities and bores -- painfully exhibits. A first play, dismally staged by John Gould Rubin and wretchedly acted by seven patsies, it easily deserves to be the last.
Through July 18 at 224 Waverly Pl. Information: +1-212-868- 4444. Rating: (no stars)
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(John Simon is the New York drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: John Simon in New York at email@example.com.