Charles Smith’s ‘Free Man of Color’ brings the story of Ohio University’s first Black graduate to campus

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) – John Newton Templeton became Ohio University’s first Black graduate in 1828, decades before the end of slavery.

Free Man of Color is a play about Templeton, written by Ohio University Distinguished Professor of Playwriting Charles Smith. It takes place in Athens circa 1824-1828, where former slave owner Robert Wilson is the third president of Ohio University and a devout member of the American Colonization Society, which wants to “relocate” the increasing numbers of freed slaves to Liberia.

When Wilson meets Templeton, he’s convinced he’s met the young man handpicked by God to serve as Liberia’s first governor. Wilson gives Templeton a scholarship to attend Ohio University, but because white students refuse to live with him, Wilson is forced to move Templeton into his home. This outrages Wilson’s wife, Jane Wilson.

Jane is horrible to Templeton,  resenting him for receiving the education she was denied due to her gender. However, her motivations are more complex than they first appear – she’s also prodding Templeton to question the nature of his circumstances and real motivations of the white men claiming to be his benefactors.

Free Man of Color takes center stage in a special reading on February 10, courtesy of the College of Fine Arts and the Division for Diversity and Inclusion. The event was organized by Courtney Kessel, Assistant Director for Experiential Design.

Although Kessel has personally known playwright Charles Smith for years, she says she only recently discovered Free Man of Color. Once she did, she knew she wanted to bring the production back to the very campus where Templeton earned his degree.

2024 marks a pivotal milestone, commemorating two centuries since Templeton embarked on his academic journey at Ohio University in 1824, thereby celebrating 200 years of Black students’ presence at Ohio University.

As a member of Ohio University’s Black History Month Committee, Kessel sees the presentation of Free Man of Color as a catalyst to ignite conversations about the profound significance of this bicentennial.

A photo of the College Green in the 1800s. [Image courtesy of Ohio University Library's Digital Collection]

Additionally, Kessel noted the production resonates meaningfully with the Smithsonian Institution’s 2024 Black History Month theme, “African Americans and the Arts.”

The event happens at 3 p.m. February 10 on the stage of the Templeton-Blackburn Memorial Auditorium, a building named in honor of Templeton and Martha Jane Hunley Blackburn, the first Black woman to graduate from Ohio University. Smith will be at the event in person for a talkback following the performance. Admission is free.

Shelley Delaney reflects on the role of Jane Wilson 

The presentation is directed by Shelley Delaney, School of Theater Professor Emerita and the actor to originate the role of Jane Wilson during its 2004 premiere in Chicago, as well as in its production later that year in Athens in commemoration of Ohio University’s bicentennial.

She says the role profoundly changed her, and even 20 years later it “[…] remains as one of the great theater experiences, one of the great acting experiences of my life.”

Delaney hadn’t been teaching at Ohio University for a full two years when Smith personally asked her to play Jane, having been impressed with the then-new faculty member’s performance in a few readings. By the time she came to teach at Ohio University, Delaney had been a professional actor in New York City for decades.

Playing Jane was not easy.

Even as an experienced actor, Delaney says she’d never had an audience react to a role with the kind of intensity she experienced while playing Jane.

She recalls the audience “[…] talking back to me and calling me horrible things in the first act,” but then shifting distinctly to resounding support of Jane during the second act.

“Getting those things out of your mouth the first few times is horrific,” Delaney said. “She’s pretty horrific. But then you get to all the reasoning, the justification – and it becomes not just this exhilarating, exhausting ride as an actor – it becomes something so important.”

Delaney says the role taught her not only to recognize the privileges inherent to her identity, but also the dire importance of “using those privileges, of living up to them.”

“I got mouthier after [playing Jane], I started to realize I have a voice,” Delaney said. “And Jane might’ve given me a little bit of permission to use it.”

This presentation of “Free Man of Color” happens at 3 p.m. on the stage of the Templeton-Blackburn Memorial Auditorium (47 East Union Street) February 10, courtesy of the College of Fine Arts and the Division for Diversity and Inclusion. Admission is free. Find more information at this link.