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February 11, 2004
"Free Man of Color" opens to rave reviews
By Joseph Hughes

Running through Feb. 29 at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, "Free Man of Color" - written by Ohio University playwright Charles Smith - is enjoying widespread critical acclaim.

"A play about race, culture and the difference between education and assimilation in America, 'Free Man of Color' tells the intriguing story of John Newton Templeton, an ex-slave who graduated from Ohio University 37 years before the end of slavery," says a Victory Gardens Theater description. "At the time, University President Robert Wilson was forced to reevaluate his abolitionist views, while Templeton was forced to examine why he was chosen to be the 'first.'"

Following its run in Chicago, "Free Man of Color" travels to Athens and Ohio University for an engagement running from March 10-13.

Chicago Sun-Times

"Director Andrea J. Dymond has cast this three-character play with an expert eye. Fleming, who has done fine work recently in 'Race,' 'Cut Flowers' and 'The Cider House Rules,' is a charismatic actor who finally has been given a role that enables him to dominate the stage. His deftly calculated, emotionally smart performance drives the play as we see his character struggling to set his own moral compass. The actor would be a natural as another complex figure with black roots - Russian poet Alexander Pushkin."

"It is to the credit of both Smith and the actors that these characters emerge with the kind of flesh-and-blood fury that often elude history plays. But then this is a deeply intriguing play, and one well worth contemplating."

Chicago Tribune

"... bold and striking new work ..."

"Good for Smith. He's an independent, strong-minded writer able to craft traditionally plotted plays that draw audiences into their stories, but then refuse to retreat from unsentimental resolutions. And in the young director Andrea J. Dymond, Smith has found a good match for his penchant for historical drama."

"All three performers are striking. Gary Houston is laudably complex as Wilson; Anthony Fleming III is highly empathetic as Templeton; and Shelley Delaney offers a fearlessly caustic performance as Wilson's wife, whose own oppression allows for some kinship with the young black man staying at her house while he goes to school."

Chicago Daily Herald

"... a highly charged meditation on race, freedom and responsibility ..."

"Fleming is exceptional as Templeton, bringing dignity and humor to the role of a man grateful for the educational opportunity offered him and confident it is entirely deserved. Delaney infuses the brittle, resentful Jane with a pathos that comes from the realization that her subjugation will never end. Houston brings a gruff paternalism to Wilson whose misguided convictions threaten to export the especially vicious cycle of civilization he claims to abhor."

Chicago Reader

"[As] played by the superb Anthony Fleming III, Templeton is a complex human being struggling with competing moral obligations of gratitude and principle, with individual morality and collective responsibility. Andrea J. Dymond's staging highlights the play's exquisite craftsmanship: She gives the strong cast plenty of scope for characterization. Fleming combines strength and vulnerability in such appealing proportions ... It might be wise to see him before we lose him to New York or Hollywood."

Copley News Services

"Smith knows how to put words in his characters' mouths that are intense and literate and challenging."

"Smith may have set his play in the 1820s but he writes with a distinct modern sensibility that will connect with Victory Gardens audiences, especially viewers with a liberal point of view. There is even a subtle sniping at George Bush, perhaps inadvertent, that drew an immediate burst of laughter and applause from the opening night crowd."

"Houston delivers a fierce performance as the liberal (for his time) reverend and university president, a man who is still under the thumb of the prejudices of his time, though he refuses to recognize the fact. Fleming portrays Templeton with dignity and resolution. The revelation of the evening is Delaney. Although she might be a bit young for her role, she gives a performance of tremendous authority and conviction as Jane, grieving as the mother of three dead sons, and frustrated and bitter as an intelligent woman suffocating in a man's world."

"There is nothing finer than a superbly written historical play and 'Free Man of Color' is another gem by the wonderful Charles Smith. Every college student should be required to see this play before being allowed to graduate."

"'Free Man of Color' is a wonderful piece on several levels, as interesting history, as a definitive debate on education versus training, as a character sketch of religious fanatics, oppressed woman and the role of Black intellectuals. It is also a portrait of the beliefs of early American frontier settlers."

"Brilliant theatre reaches us through the magic of the live stage to get us thinking about who we are by showing us who we were and where we came from. The issues of 1824 Ohio are still relevant in the America of 2004, thus 'Free Man of Color's' importance reigns. Get to Victory Gardens Theater and catapult yourself back to the roots of the American dilemma. You'll be stimulated and enthralled with the experience."

Newcity Chicago

"There are some actors you could watch forever. Like Anthony Fleming III, who plays the title role in 'Free Man of Color,' now at Victory Gardens Theater. There are a variety of reasons this production is worth seeing. But make no mistake: Fleming is the best reason to see this show. He is just that good, blessed with a deep, mellifluous voice and an offhand confidence that is magnetic and, when he wishes it to be, quite searing."

"The hows and whys of his story are fascinating, and playwright Charles Smith hones close to a sparks-a-flyin' Platonic dialogue method, where every philosophical conundrum is debated with elegance and rational intelligence and plenty of passion. With solid, straightforward direction by Andrea J. Dymond, this is one of the strongest productions to come out of Victory Gardens in quite some time."

Windy City Times

"However elegant and articulate Smith's text, the task of conveying its complexities falls to director Andrea J. Dymond and a trio of actors experienced at conveying oratory into vernacular without losing a fraction of its eloquence. As the Rev. Wilson, Gary Houston captures the tunnel-vision of a fundamentally principled man unwilling to examine the flaws in his practices. Anthony Fleming III portrays Templeton with a dignity initially indicative of diffidence but gradually warming into defiant pride."

"But it is Shelley Delaney's Jane Wilson who serves to remind us of rights denied allegedly 'privileged' citizens by a society proclaiming - with complete conviction - freedom for all."

Joseph Hughes is a writer for University Communications and Marketing


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