Biography done with integrity

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.

By the time the American Colonization Society comes around looking to recruit Templeton, things have reached a critical point inside the Wilson home. At the same time, graduation is fast approaching. Templeton is torn about his future, and his benefactors are little help. They are beginning to use him as a cipher through which to funnel their beliefs of the outside world and have stopped treating him like a human being.

The society encourages freed African Americans to return to Africa to a colony they founded called Liberia. Templeton originally supports these relocation efforts until he starts questioning the group's motives. Wilson and Templeton's formally father-and-son type of relationship immediately turns ice cold. When Jane Wilson suddenly becomes an unlikely confidante, the play really gets interesting.

All proving my point that intimacy draws an audience in much quicker than a commencement scene. The tiny cast is mostly up to the task. Carthy rushes through most of her angry lines in the first act but settles into a nice groove once Jane Wilson's emotions turn warmer. Memorable character actor Ashmore ("Airplane!") is disarming and charming. He does a great job hiding the darker aspects of Robert Wilson's psyche until the last dramatic minutes.

But it is Ferguson's show from start to finish. His open face and yearning eyes are a ray of light in the darkness that surrounds Templeton at every turn. Ferguson makes you truly feel what this captivating but forgotten American might have really been like in real life, not some stuffy history book. Or some stale biography.

JAMES PETRILLO is a screenwriter and actor from Los Angeles.


What: "Free Man of Color" by Charles Smith

Where: The Colony Theatre Company

555 N. Third St., adjacent to the Burbank Town Center

When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 12; question-and-answer talkbacks with the cast on Sept. 2 after the performance.

Tickets: $20 to $42 (student, senior and group discounts available)

Contact: (818) 558-7000 or visit

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