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Portraying Templeton's Triumph
Playwright Smith brings Templeton story to the stage


By Melissa Rake Calhoun

When Charles Smith began hunting through Ohio University's archives for details of John Newton Templeton's life, he fished out only a few trace documents. No diaries, memoirs or letters floated to the surface of Alden Library's deep repositories.

Playwright Charles SmithA longtime playwright, Smith expected as much. He knew that writing a play about Ohio University's first African-American graduate would call for a careful blend of detective work and poetic license.

"I've always been interested in John Newton Templeton as a subject," says Smith, head of Ohio University's Professional Playwriting Program. "The idea that there was a black man at a university almost 40 years before the end of slavery intrigued me. What was it like for him here? I wanted to find out."

Smith's arduous research and insightful playwriting skills resulted in "Free Man of Color," a three-character play that portrays the relationship between Templeton and then-Ohio University President Robert Wilson and his wife, Jean, who hosted him during his college years. The play is collaborative project involving Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater and the Ohio University bicentennial celebration. It will debut Jan. 16 at Victory Gardens, where Smith is a playwright in residence, and comes to Ohio University in March.

An ex-slave from South Carolina, Templeton became the nation's fourth African-American to graduate from college when he earned a degree from Ohio University on Sept. 17, 1828. Not much is known about Templeton during his college years other than his four-year stay in the Wilsons' home as a "student-servant," his participation in the Athens Literary Society and a speech he gave at commencement advocating the creation of a homeland in Liberia for African-Americans. It's a philosophy he rejected as racist after moving in the mid-1830s to Pittsburgh, where he befriended black activist Martin Delany. With Delany's encouragement, Templeton went on to teach newly emancipated slaves how to read and write, an illegal practice in Pennsylvania at the time.

That sums up Templeton's life - on paper. On stage, Smith hopes to conjure a narrative cobbled from Templeton's history and what he has learned about the Wilsons as a couple, campus leaders and religious people. In his research, for example, Smith discovered that Robert Wilson, a Presbyterian minister, supported the concept of sending freed slaves back to Africa.

To see the play

Ohio University playwright Charles Smith's new bicentennial play, "Free Man of Color," plays in Athens at 8 p.m. March 11-13 at Ohio University's Elizabeth Evans Baker Theater in Kantner Hall. Tickets are $12 for students and senior citizens and $15 for adults. To order tickets or for more information, call the School of Fine Arts box office at 593-4800.

"I started piecing things together and came to the conclusion that this philosophy could be one of the reasons the president brought John Newton Templeton here," Smith says. At the time, the Presbyterian church advocated training freed slaves to serve as missionaries in Liberia, and Smith believes Wilson likely envisioned such a role for Templeton.

Smith describes the playwriting process for "Free Man of Color" as a mix of fact, fiction and personal reflection. "When I'm writing," Smith says, "I get as much information as I can and ask myself, 'What do I believe?' Then I start to construct a fictitious story that I think gets closer to the truth than you possibly could get by just reading the facts."

In the role of Templeton on stage will be Anthony Fleming III, while President Wilson will be played by Gary Houston. Both are well-regarded Chicago-area actors. Ohio University Assistant Professor of Theater Shelley Delaney will portray Wilson's wife.

"Templeton's story is a critical piece of history, and I hope the play will be entertaining and thought-provoking," Smith says. "I wouldn't propose to teach people anything, but I hope the audience will think about things in ways they had never thought about before."

A full version of this story appears in the Winter 2004 commemorative Ohio Today

Melissa Rake Calhoun, former assistant editor of Ohio Today, is a freelance writer living in Marietta, Ohio.

Photos courtesy Michael Brosilow

 

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