March 5 2014 12:00 AM

Riverwalk show depicts early American movement to advance freed slaves

History is sometimes a strange stew of colliding ideas that can form the foundation for a highly entertaining story, as is the case with Riverwalk Theatre’s production of “Free Man of Color.”

Writer Charles Smith takes on the complex tale of former slaveholders in the early 1820s who had a “second sight” of guilt and shame for owning slaves. They created the American Colonization Society, which established the west African colony that would become the nation of Liberia. Smith distills this convoluted notion into a meaty broth, richly brought to life by three characters at the center of the controversial movement.

Central to the drama is John Newton Templeton (Rahman Shareef), a slave who was freed in his childhood and became the first black student at Ohio University. Templeton is clearly educated, but is naïve to the ways of the world into which he is entering. Shareef begins his characterization portraying Templeton as having the earnest innocence of a child, but as the play unfolds, troubled lines of concentration and confusion begin to appear in his face as he begins to understand the plan his mentor, Robert Wilson (Jeff Boerger), has in mind for him: ascension to the governorship of Liberia.

The third thread woven into the tapestry of the play is Jane Wilson (Mara McGill), Robert’s wife. She appears at first to be no more than a cynical devious counterpoint to her husband’s fractured idealism. Her seeming contempt for Templeton upon his arrival is at first confusing, but as she becomes Templeton’s ally, it becomes clearer.

Transformation of character is at the heart of this saga. Each of the three characters, in turn, displays a wide range of emotions and thoughts, showing surprising elements of depth and complexity. Wilson, the president of Ohio University, is a character of classic intellect laced with a heavy moralistic religiosity. Wilson treats Templeton like a son, yet is blind to his own condescension. Boerger has a knack for acting presidential, a certain kind of elegant walk, a manner of speaking that suggests thoughtful reflection; It serves his character’s development well, especially as Wilson unravels a bit near the end and he becomes aware of his transgressions.

McGill is the unexpected element in this play, both articulate and earthy, Southern charm steeled in bitter irony. Her character showcases the sexism that was as prevalent as racism in the minds and hearts of 1820s men. Her story is as important to know as Templeton’s.

Kris Maier’s costuming, particularly of McGill, is noteworthy, conveying a strong sense of the times. Bob Nees’ simple three-piece set provides an intimate focus to the black box stage.

“Free Man of Color” enlightens, educates, and entertains, from beginning to end.

“Free Man of Color”

Riverwalk Theatre 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, March 7-8; 2 p.m. Sunday, March 9 $12/$10 student, senior, military 228 Museum Drive, Lansing (517) 482 -5700,