“A Free Man of Color,” the most recent work by celebrated American playwright John Guare, takes the stage of the Arts Bank Theater, 601 S. Broad St. in a production by the Ira Brind School of Theater Arts at the University of the Arts. Performances are slated for Oct. 11 to 14.
“This is an ambitious play that’s got its sights set on big ideas about race, imperialism, and freedom,” says director Matt Pfieffer. “And it’s all framed in the guise of a Restoration comedy featuring students of UArts who prove themselves more than worthy of the challenge. It’s inspiring to me and I hope it will be for an audience as well.”
Featured in the production is 20-year-old Jahzeer Terrell, a junior who plays the principal role of Jacques Cornet, the flamboyant playboy who suddenly finds himself deprived of his standing in New Orleans society when America acquires the city as part of its Louisiana Purchase.
“Cornet,” Terrell says, “goes from being a flamboyant playboy to being impoverished and eventually sold into slavery because of the Louisiana Purchase. So the play is both a celebration of good times in history when people were equal and life was fun, to a time when people were waking up to the realities of race and freedom that America always had and holds dear to this day.”
Terrell, who grew up in Philadelphia, began his training at the New Freedom Theatre’s Performing Arts training program at age 9 and continued his studies there, building his skills for what he hoped would be his future career.
“My mother worked there, and I came along with her from time to time,” Terrell remembered. “I used to watch people on the stage singing, dancing and acting, and they all seemed to love what they were doing and proud to be there. There was so much excitement around me that I had never seen before, and I thought I’d like to do it too.”
And so he was enrolled first in the summer program at the Theater, learning core skills that eventually helped him become part of the student body at he University of the Arts. He also began appearing in productions such as “Journey of a Gun,” “Get UP AQND Get into it,” and “12 going on 20.”
“I attended Central High School and was involved in some productions there too. But it wasn’t until my junior or senior year at Central, and the kind of training I got at Freedom Theater, that I made up my mind to become a professional actor,” Terrell said.
Although he thought about attending school away from home, he insists that he was very happy to finally decide to stay in Philadelphia. “I’ve always loved the theater scene here. Even the audiences in Philadelphia seem so much more alive, very responsive, and right there with you as you’re performing. It’s also a comfort to know where you are and have that sense of your roots when you’re acting.”
Guare, the author of works like “Six Degrees of Separation” and “The House of Blue Leaves,” was originally commissioned to create “Free Man of Color,” an ambitious epic work in 2004, and it had its premiere at Lincoln Center Theater in December of 2010.
“I’m really happy to be in this production and look forward to being in many more,” Terrell said. “I always find joy in whatever I’m doing and try never to lose sight of that joy. There are times when the work is really hard and the experience becomes difficult. That’s when you have to push yourself and work even harder. And that’s what I’ve done and will continue to do.”