As part of Americas Off Broadway – ” Freed” – written by Charles Smith is receiving its New York City premiere at 59 E 59 Theaters – a joint production of Penguin Rep Theatre is association with Chase Mishkin.
It is based on John Newton Templeton – a name that few know but that many will after seeing this handsomely produced and discreetly directed play of opposing ideas and debate with the belief that one can surmount seemingly impossible odds.
On a simple Shaker-like set by Joseph J. Egan, Sheldon Best is John Newtown Templeton. And he could very well be the next Denzel Washington. He is giving a noble, heroic, honest and passionate performance as the educated slave boy who was freed in 1813 (long before the Emancipation Proclamation) who knows Greek and Latin and has been chosen by the President of Ohio University, Robert Wilson (a single-minded, strong Christopher McCann) in the years between 1824-1828 to continue his education – or is it training?
Mr. Templeton may have been the first black man to attend and graduate college in the Mid-West but he was not allowed to share quarters with the other ten students. And so he lives with the fanatical Reverend Wilson and his resentful, troubled wife Jane (a resilient Emma O’Donnell).
Not the happiest of couples, Templeton is caught in the middle most of the time and has many obstacles put before him – one of which is having him likened to a trained circus ape. It is his innate dignity and ability to negotiate with his wits, his need for independence; his eagerness to learn and to please as he attempts to maintain an even temper throughout that is most fascinating.
Especially when some of the audience members side with him vocally as he discovers the true reason why he was chosen and makes a mighty important decision – whether or not to accept the Governorship of Liberia – a nation of freed slaves that he is being groomed to be sent back to. Somewhat akin to Helen Thomas telling the Jews to go back to Poland and Germany.
Where “Freed” could have been a boring, scholastic history lesson the fine writing of Charles Smith continually keeps our interest piqued. The three characters are fully developed and we discover their motivations little by little as Templeton tells and relives his story.
The excellent costumes (Patricia E. Doherty) and lighting (Martin E. Vreeland) both add a welcomed theatricality to the proceedings. But it is the intriguing triangle of personalities and how they resolve their wants and the sturdy breakthrough performance of Mr. Sheldon Best that ultimately makes “Freed” a play that makes you take notice. Through July 3rd. www.59E59.org
Photo: Kerwin McCarthy