It is rare – particularly at the Edinburgh Fringe – to be able to look around midway through a play and see a dozen audience members visibly in tears. This is testament to the sheer power of Strictly Arts Theatre’s Freeman.
Freemen centres around the experiences of William Freeman: the first black man in America to plea not guilty by reason of insanity. Not limited to the 19th century, the play explores the devastating mental and physical effects of the legal trouble experienced by five black men and women in the UK and USA. From 1823 to 2016, and from New York to Leeds, the play makes no bones about demonstrating the timelessness of racism, abuse of power and neglect. However, it is the unrelenting tension and energy in the storytelling that truly makes Freeman stand out.
Camilla Whitehill and Strictly Arts should be applauded for the depth and complexity of the story they tell. Freeman deftly demonstrates problems surrounding white privilege and police brutality in a way that is accusatory yet fair. The overwhelming, raw energy of the ensemble cast makes it impossible to take your eyes off the stage for a moment. Every performance is exemplary, with the entire cast effortlessly embodying half a dozen characters each. The physical strength and ability of the Strictly Arts Theatre ensemble is second to none. Freeman features some of the most brutally realistic stage combat I have ever seen and the physicality of its actors shines through in the physical theatre sections of the performance. The addition of torch-lit shadow puppetry and gut-wrenching sound effects is evidence to a technical design that is inventive and well-considered.
Freeman asks a lot of hard questions: questions it has no answers for. That will be the challenge for its audiences, long after they have left the theatre and the tears have dried. To call it a timely play would minimise the consistently terrible treatment of black prisoners over the past 200+ years. Thus, let it simply be said that Freeman is a devastatingly important play. A play whose story every fringe-goer owes it to themselves to see.
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