Freeman tells the powerful life-stories of six individuals, including William Freeman; the first African-American man to plead insanity as his defence.
The minimalist staging allows the audience to focus their attention on the energetic and emotional performances delivered with each new character. The play is easy to follow despite being quite stylised due to the use of physical theatre and shadow puppetry. It imaginatively investigates the hard-hitting topics of racial violence and social injustice, in a powerful but sensitive way.
The use of physical theatre in the beginning of the piece foreshadows the suffering later experienced by the black characters in the play, with motifs taken from different parts of the play to form one whole choreographed piece. The use of physical theatre is very skilful; for example, when the shape and movement of a horse is recreated, for which one white actor forms part of the horse and one of the black actors controls the horse. This can be seen as an ironic and rather humorous act of showing alternative views towards white supremacy.
Each of the six stories is as important as the other, focusing on each injustice in order to illustrate that each person is an individual human being, each with a life and a family and a purpose, before an ordeal that completely changes their life.
The play delves into the past, illustrating that a black person’s desire for freewill and freedom in the 19th century was seen as a disease, rather than a human right, which could only be cured by the act of whipping at the hands of their owner. This emphasises the fact that many black people were often viewed by the white population not as human beings but as animals (or perhaps something even more alien), and this view fuelled the consistent racial prejudice that is still seen even today.
The piece also focuses on the way black individuals are so easily convicted for very trivial crimes that police would often overlook if committed by a white person. This highlights that there is gross corruption within the justice system, as black people’s’ fates and worth are predetermined with factors outside of their control. This point is explicitly made as William Freeman’s white lawyer struggles to persuade the 19th century court that he cannot be tried, as he is insane, whilst McNaughton (a white man) successfully escapes his trial by pleading insanity. Two of the stories show how this extreme prejudice can be so brutal that it can cause a never-ending cycle of poverty and further discrimination, causing homelessness, mental health problems and, in some cases, suicide.
The subject of racial mistreatment is so vast, diverse, important and crucial to the global past, present and future of communities. This piece only brushes the surface of a huge issue that still exists today. Despite this, Freeman is a Fringe must-see; it is a powerful, intense and totally immersive. It is a brilliantly written piece of theatre focusing on historical figures and their experience of racial discrimination, as well as telling a very important message that racial discrimination is still very much alive in today’s society.
Pleasance Courtyard – Pleasance Above (Venue 33)
Until 27th August
Image: Strictly Arts Theatre