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Theater Review: One Moment of Freedom

Kristal Dickerson, John Combs, Catherine Bruhier, Diane Linder and Michael Robb in One Moment of Freedom. Photo by Ryan Rowles.

One Moment of Freedom, a world premiere play now onstage at Theatre Forty, is based on the true story of an enslaved woman who successfully sued for her freedom in 1781 Massachusetts. It is the first full-length play by veteran TV writer Marion J. Zola. Linda Alznauer directs.

As the play opens, Bet (Catherine Bruhier) has been the property of prominent attorney John Ashley (Daniel Leslie) of Sheffield, Massachusetts for about 30 years. The United States has just obtained its own freedom from British rule, and a local group has drawn up a manifesto, the Sheffield Declaration. Ashley is on the committee that drafted the manifesto and Bet overheard many of the discussions about its content.

Bet also hears a town crier reading the newly enacted Massachusetts Constitution, which echoes the manifesto’s inspiring words: “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”

After being abused by John Ashley’s daughter Alison (Katyana Rocker-Cook) Bet leaves the Ashley home. She consults Ashley’s friend Theodore Sedgwick (Michael Robb), who agrees to represent her in fighting for her freedom under the new state constitution.

Michael Kerr and Catherine Bruhier in One Moment of Freedom. Photo by Ryan Rowles.

The second act opens in court. Bet obtains her freedom and takes the name Elizabeth Freeman. While Ashley defends himself in the case, he accepts his loss and immediately offers to pay Bet and her daughter Lizzie (Kristal Dickerson) for their work. He is almost deferential to the mother and daughter, even opening doors for them.

An effective history lesson, One Moment of Freedom feels more like a workshop than a production. The play seems to have several natural endpoints, but continues on with codas to the main resolution, the court case. Suspense over whether or not Alison Ashley’s abuse of her slave will end her engagement to Tapping Reeve (Joe Clabby) ultimately fizzles. With some tightening and reshaping, One Moment could be a more powerful statement.

Joe Clabby and Katyana Rocker-Cook in One Moment of Freedom. Photo by Ryan Rowles.

One Moment of Freedom runs through August 27 at Theatre Forty, 241 S. Moreno Dr. in Beverly Hills. Show times are primarily Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm; check the theater’s website for specifics. Tickets are $38.

Read an 1853 manuscript in which the daughter of Theodore Sedgwick documented Elizabeth Freeman’s recitation of her life story here.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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