Free and Proud is a duologue detailing the lifespan of a relationship. It employs two dramatic tropes at once by opening with both a flashforward and a death. But nothing about this play is clichéd.
Set in the USA, Nigerian Hakeem is a Physics professor at an Ivy League school, proud of his accomplishments and still closely connected to his family in Africa. Jeremy, on the other hand, is a white American, casually working on poetry in his spare time and enjoying the privileges life has afforded him. The two characters seem like an odd match on paper, and they are – something the couple themselves appreciate more and more as their time together unfolds. However, they’re often as dishonest with one another as they are with themselves and end up getting married; something the audience, and Hakeem and Jeremy, quickly sense is a mistake.
The relationship-centric play is no soap opera or superficial love story. It provokes and poses questions about the nature of modern day love, asking whether or not we ever really shed our individual identities and secrets even when devoting our lives to one another. It also portrays the upsetting and perhaps familiar patterns of partnerships that gradually dissipate over time as individuals grow in their own directions at their own paces.
The staging is simple, using a sparse backdrop and basic lighting alterations to flit between vignettes. The two leads – Faaiz Mbelizi and Michael Gilbert – deliver outstanding performances. Both adopting convincing accents, they each carve detailed characters and engage us with emphatic delivery. The script is thoughtful, upsetting and funny, and writer Charles Gershman knows exactly when to shift from one tone to another to capture us.
Free and Proud is strong because it manages to detail a passionate and finely drawn relationship between two men, as well as to speak universal truths about love, commitment and (dis)honesty. Within the modest confines of a small studio theatre, this play achieves something big to be proud of.