“The history of madness would be the history of the Other— of that which, for a given culture, is at once interior and foreign, therefore to be excluded (so as to exorcize the interior danger) but by being shut away (in order to reduce its otherness).”
Michel Foucault, ‘The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences’
As Michel Foucault famously argued in History and Madness, the discipline of psychiatry cannot be properly understood in isolation from other institutions of coercion and punishment. Consequently, the history of madness and mental health is deeply intertwined with questions of political and social injustice. Its explicit associations with racism, however, are less frequently stated, as demonstrated to devastating effect in this powerful new play.
Freeman takes its name from a legal case ultimately brought before the New York Supreme Court in 1846, People v. William Freeman. As a youth, Freeman—a man of African and Native American descent—had been falsely convicted for horse theft and sentenced to five years hard labour. While in prison, Freeman was repeatedly beaten for protesting his innocence, so much so that upon his release it was said he could hardly recognise his own mother and had become obsessed with revenge for his wrongful imprisonment.
Freeman later carried out such revenge—his trial resulted from capture following his murder of a wealthy farmer, John Van Nest, and members of the Van Nest family. Local attorney William Seward defended Freeman in court, marking the first case in United States history where an insanity plea was raised by the defendant. In the local courts, the jury deemed Freeman sufficiently sane to stand trial before ultimately finding him guilty and sentencing him to death. At the state Supreme Court on appeal, the conviction was reversed on point of error and a new trial ordered. Freeman, however, died in his cell the following year from tuberculosis. A postmortem autopsy showed that he suffered from advanced brain deterioration.
This court case, and all its ethical, social, historical and political complexity, serves as the centre of a narrative spider’s web where five other horrifying stories of destroyed black lives, of racially-motivated miscarriages of justice and questions of mental health, tightly intertwine. But Freeman also takes great trouble to emphasise the fact that, although these six lives are the stories being told, it’s infuriatingly, heart-breakingly clear that there are hundreds of similar stories, similar lives.
Written as a collaboration between playwright Camilla Whitehill and Strictly Arts Theatre Company, the carefully-considered production uses every available means to bring its harrowing stories to life. Dance, music, shadow puppetry, but especially exquisitely-observed physical theatre, channel the intense energy and obvious talent of the six-strong cast to mesmerising effect.
Everyone who comes to Edinburgh for the Fringe has their reasons, whether an entertaining holiday or professional gain. I return year after year with my fingers crossed for a show that pulls the world out from underneath me. I’ve seen much accomplished work this year, but Freeman is the show I’ll still be thinking about next month, perhaps even this time next year.
Freeman is on at Pleasance Courtyard until 27th August, as part of the 2018 Edinburgh fringe. More info here.