Too Free for Me Concludes Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre Anniversary Season

By Lana A. Whited

This review appeared in The Franklin News-Post, Rocky Mount, Virginia, in July 2004. It is reprinted in AppLit with the author's permission. See below for photos of past performances and links to news on an award-winning 2012 production of this play.

Ghosts walk the stage in the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre’s recent production of Too Free for Me.

The play, by BRDT Artistic Director R. Rex Stephenson, tells the true story of a black woman, Indiana Choice, who took a Franklin County landowner, Gresham Choice, to court for assaulting her and refusing to recognize her freedom. Indiana’s complaint was argued by Jubal Early in 1851, long before his Civil War enshrined him in local legend. And at the black woman’s side sat the landowner’s wife, Cassandra Choice, pregnant with the couple’s child.

Even more remarkable than these facts was the verdict: Indiana Choice was declared a free woman in the Franklin County courthouse – ten years before the Civil War began.

So some of the ghosts walking the stage are the players in this captivating true story: Indiana Choice, Jubal Early, Gresham and Cassandra Choice, Andrew Edmundson (the “big city lawyer from Martinsville” who defended Gresham Choice), and narrator Margaret Oxley, whose father served on the jury and who narrates the play in flashback as an adult.

The BRDT company performed Too Free for Me regularly for the first few seasons and has staged additional productions over its 25 years. This was the third production I have seen. And most of us who have seen this important play repeatedly see other ghosts as well. They are the ghosts of Ferrum alumna Willette Thompson, who originated the role of Indiana Choice 25 seasons ago and has played it more than any other actress, and alumnus Joe Stanley, whose delivery, as Edmundson, of the play’s title line still rings in my memory: Any black woman free enough to drag a prosperous white landowner into court, says Edmundson, “is already too free for me!”

(Willette Thompson '81, at right, was alumna speaker at Ferrum's 2002 Women's Leadership Conference.)

Some ghosts in the current production are not specters but the same actors reprising roles in which it is hard for me now to imagine anyone else. By now, Stephenson has come to own the role of Gresham Choice, whom he has played in every production except one. In his hands, Choice is the right blend of frustration and fury.

BRDT Producer Jody D. Brown is right at home in the role of the adult Margaret Oxley, the narrator. Her best scenes happen as she moves through the courtroom of her memory, recalling the testimony and the tears. Company regular Joe Ray’s Jubal Early is an appealing combination of mischief and masterful rhetoric. Early’s argument that Indiana Choice is free because a white master freed her mother and white men must be free to do as they please with their property was a work of genius–undoubtedly the only such argument a white male jury would have bought.

And Janice Lynn Stephenson Watkins returns to the BRDT stage with a nice turn as practical shopkeeper Roberta Wilson. Wilson embodies don’t-rock-the-boat practicality, more concerned with staying on the right side of her customers than with any question of legal truth. To Watkins’ credit, her Roberta Wilson avoids cliché. (Kristina Stump, one of several BRDT alumni attending the performance I saw, was also memorable in this role.)

But the reprisal of Too Free for Me offers a few other performances that will no doubt loom in my memory whenever the play is performed again. Fresh from delighting BRDT audiences as Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the very talented Emily Rose Tucker conveys the pain of a woman testifying against her own husband and the conviction necessary for such a confrontation in her appearance as Cassandra Choice. Just as the Cassandra of Greek mythology has the gift of knowledge, Cassandra Choice forges ahead on the strength of a pure conviction that Indiana Choice is free. Narrator Margaret Oxley calls her “the bravest woman I ever saw,” and Cassandra, not Indiana, is the play’s true protagonist.

Nikki Payne Dunn’s Indiana Choice is a less elegant presentation than that of Willette Thompson but works nevertheless. Thompson’s Indiana always seems somewhat mythic; Dunn’s is very much a real person. It is interesting to have seen two alumna of the Ferrum drama program approach the role of Indiana differently yet, in each case, successfully.

And BRDT newcomer Caroline Simmons brings energy and a touch of believable self-righteousness to the abolitionist Mrs. Clark, wife of the Episcopal minister. With this role, Simmons closes out her run of three strong performances this season.

Any production of Too Free for Me is both horrifying and inspiring. It is horrifying that the question of whether Gresham Choice was within his legal rights in beating Indiana is relative: if she had been his slave, the beating would have been declared a private matter. It is horrifying to imagine a society that viewed one person as the property of another. And it is horrifying that an educated person such as lawyer Edmundson would argue for that system. But it is inspiring that a woman like Cassandra Choice would have risked such a cost – her marriage – for the freedom of a black woman whom she loved perhaps better than her own sister. And it is inspiring that an all-white, all-male jury in 1851 would recognize a black woman’s freedom on the testimony of two women and the arguments of one remarkable attorney.

If Rex Stephenson had invented the case of Indiana Choice, any reviewer would find the outcome too unlikely. Had Stephenson chosen the name “Cassandra” for Cassandra Choice, the suggestion of her wisdom would seem too neat. Had he chosen the name “Indiana Choice” (“Indiana” for the territory that entered the Union as a free state in 1816), the significance might have seemed too obvious. And isn’t it a remarkable coincidence that the black woman whose legal status forms the crux of this play bore the name of Stephenson’s home state? Even the least superstitious viewer must feel, given these circumstances, that Stephenson was destined to write this play.

Too Free for Me is one of Rex Stephenson’s best plays, despite its having been his first play written for adults. It is one that every Franklin County resident should see, a story everyone who lives in “the land between the lakes” should know. Those who missed the most recent run should not despair. Sooner or later, the ghost of Indiana Choice finds her way back to the BRDT stage again. And even for those who know the verdict, it’s always inspiring to watch these courtroom theatrics again.

Earlier and Later Productions of Too Free for Me

1979 production     1991 production

Photo on left: 1979 production for public television station WBRA with Willette Thompson as Indiana Choice, sitting next to Linda Kelly as Cassandra Choice. Lee Walker standing as Jubal Early. John Van Patten on right as lawyer Edmundson. Susie Whitaker playing Susan Barrows Stockton, testifying in front. Toni Carey seated in back with hands in her lap.

Photo on right: 1991 production at the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre with Todd Necessary on left as Jubal Early, Willette Thompson, Joe Stanley making a speech as lawyer Edmundson.

2102 production at Marion Senior High School    Performance at Court Days Rocky Mount 2015

Photo on left: A 2012 production at Marion Senior High School won first place at the second level of competition and performed at the state level. The director, BRDT veteran Todd Necessary, is pictured above as Jubal Early in 1991.

Photo on right: In a 2015 performance at Court Days in Rocky Mount, Willette Thompson returned as Indiana Choice and Rex Stephenson played Lawyer Edmundson, defending slavery in this scene at the Franklin County Courthouse.

More Photos and details in Facebook photo album

Lana Whited, professor of English at Ferrum College, has been a regular BRDT reviewer for many seasons. She has also been also a weekly columnist for

Too Free for Me by R. Rex Stephenson has been published by Eldridge Plays and Musicals (replacing original publisher, Encore), 1998. 

See also BRDT Revives First Play for 25th Season. Ferrum College press release on Too Free for Me

Photos from several productions in Facebook photo album

Burchette, Linda. "MSHS Drama Students Take First at Regional Competition." 23 Nov. 2012. Accessed 13 Nov. 2017.

Photo of Willette Thompson performing with the Jack Tale Players in "Jack Fear-No-Man," on "Jack and the Giants" page.

Dramas and Tales by R. Rex Stephenson

Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre Facebook page (theatre closed after 2012 season)

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