As a black man living in the early 1800s, John Newton Templeton's milestones are so early they've nearly escaped history.
Born a slave, Templeton was the first black man to attend Ohio University, and the fourth to graduate from any American institution of higher learning. Information is so scant about Templeton that when playwright Charles Smith was commissioned to write a play about him, he had to invent portions of his life.
The result is "Free Man of Color," which takes the stage this weekend at Pine Camp Cultural Arts and Community Center.
In the show, Templeton believes he has been invited to attend Ohio University because the school's president wants to prove that a black man can be as educated as any white man. He comes to find that the president, the Rev. Robert Wilson, wants to groom him to be leader in the West African country Liberia.
"'Free Man of Color' is a study of … what is the true meaning of freedom," says Toney Cobb, director of the Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company show. "On the surface, it appears that this young man has been given this wonderful opportunity to become educated and grow. However, this opportunity comes with some strings attached."
Early in his life, Templeton was a proponent of sending free blacks to Liberia, but came to oppose that stance, and later fought for the emancipation of all blacks throughout the country. Local actor Jamar Jones, previously seen in the Richmond Triangle Players' "Choir Boy," plays Templeton.
"It's really about his exploration of learning to navigate himself in the world," Jones says. "He really has to discover what it means to be a free man, a free thinker."
Jones says the show is a reminder of the pioneering work men and women like Templeton did.
"They really were the trailblazers to say that all of us deserve to be here, we all deserve an education," Jones says. "I'm trying to do his life justice and his time justice so that people can connect."
A sense of being out of place and trying to establish oneself is a common theme in "Free Man of Color." The son of Irish immigrants, Robert Wilson also is trying to prove himself in a country that's not even half a century old. A native of North Carolina, Wilson became a Presbyterian minister and president of Ohio University through luck and perseverance.
"He tried to recruit this free black man to come to his school and be one of the first 10 black graduates of any university in America," says Ken Moretti, who plays Wilson. "He was very fond of [the Liberia] movement, and being a Presbyterian minister, felt that what was what they were ordained to do."
Rounding out the cast in this three hander is Mara Barrett, who plays Wilson's wife Jane. When Templeton's classmates balk at the idea of rooming with a black man, the Wilsons take him in. It is not an arrangement Jane initially approves of, and she is rankled by the fact that a black man can get an education in the 1820s, but she, as a woman, can not.
"At first, Jane doesn't seem like the nicest person in the world," Barrett says. "As the story progresses, you start to have a little bit of compassion for her, and you start to feel her pain."
Barrett says many of the issues brought up in the show have echoes today.
"It touches on issues of race, it touches on issues of feminism, and it also sheds some light on our system of education," she says. "Looking at this show, you see how far we have come as a society, but you are also reminded how far we still have to go."
In discussing the importance of the play, Jones recalls the adage of how those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.
"They don't say that for nothing," Jones says. The show is "a really great examination of what has been, and how different ideologies [still] find a way to permeate the world today." S
Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company's "Free Man of Color" plays Feb. 8-17 at Pine Camp Cultural Arts and Community Center, 4901 Old Brook Road. theheritageensemble.wixsite.com/thetc.