Earlier than Literary Stardom, Frederick Douglass Confronted a Lifetime of Violence

Earlier than Literary Stardom, Frederick Douglass Confronted a Lifetime of Violence

Frederick Douglass was probably the most photographed American of the nineteenth century. He knew the ability of visualization and sat for greater than 160 photographic portraits. Douglass is once more within the public eye with a Pulitzer Prize–successful biography, an HBO documentary, and a movie produced for distribution by the Public Broadcasting System. It ought to come as no shock, then, that he’s now the topic of that almost all American of theatrical codecs: the musical.

However American Prophet, lately staged by the Kreeger Theater, a part of the Area Stage in Washington, D.C., one of many nation’s most prestigious regional theaters, will not be your typical song-and-dance musical. Just like the extensively acclaimed and better-known Hamilton, the retelling of the primary half of Douglass’ turbulent and infrequently violent life departs from the realm of tuneful fancy into the extra exacting realm of historical past. Utilizing Douglass’ precise language drawn from a plentiful archive of his speeches, letters, journalism, and autobiographies, Hummon, a Grammy Award winner, and Randolph-Wright, an award successful playwright, reveal the poetry and energy of the rising abolitionist, orator, journalist, and creator and challenges the viewers to see that the discrimination and racism Douglass endured all through his life proceed in society in the present day.


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Whereas the musical is primarily set between 1851 and 1865, Douglass’ early years are introduced in flashbacks that embrace his childhood in Talbot County, Md., his escape to New York Metropolis in 1838, his settlement in New Bedford, Mass, and his development as an acknowledged spokesman for abolition and racial equality. Cornelius Smith Jr. who portrayed Douglass within the Kreeger manufacturing, is a riveting presence on the present’s minimalist, wood-paneled set. His soulful voice and and hauntingly highly effective eye contact with the viewers makes Douglass a compelling and sophisticated character that calls for consideration and respect. Nowhere is that this extra evident than within the rousing music that ends the primary act, “We Want a Hearth.” Sung by Douglass and the present’s ensemble, it’s the manufacturing’s signature anthem and is drawn from Douglass’ well-known 1852 “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech, delivered at Corinthian Corridor in Rochester, N.Y.

Douglass isn’t the one character commanding consideration. Hummon and Randolph-Wright carry to life Douglass’ spouse, Anna Murray, a relentless and resolute companion typically missed by historical past as a result of she selected to stay within the shadow of her illustrious husband. Kristolyn Lloyd poignantly portrays Anna, a free Black lady from Caroline County, Md., a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and a bona fide historic heroine in her personal proper. She met Douglass at a dance in Baltimore in 1838, urged him to persevere in his flight to freedom, later served as his enterprise agent, and raised 5 youngsters throughout their 44 years of marriage whereas her peripatetic husband spent most of his time on the highway. Their steely but affectionate bond is mirrored within the craving great thing about “Kids of the Identical River,” a music acknowledging that the wrestle for freedom and racial justice will eat each their lives.

American Prophet additionally depictsthe difficult relationships Douglass had with three different necessary historic figures: William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln. Chris Roberts performs Brown with an impatient vitality worthy of the firebrand abolitionist. He joins Douglass in “We Want a Hearth” and is given a a lot deserved solo in “Arms” as he prepares for his ill-fated Harpers Ferry raid. Thomas Adrian Simpson portrays each Garrison and Lincoln. Some critics have discovered fault with how Lincoln is portrayed and with Douglass’ assembly with the president. However these are simply missed quibbles in an in any other case praiseworthy manufacturing that challenges the viewers to look into their very own hearts and grapple with the advanced points and feelings portrayed.

In a latest interview, Randolph-Wright presciently mirrored, “We have to perceive the place we’ve been to take care of the place we’re and the place we’re going.” He hopes his present will quickly be going to Broadway, the place it deserves to garner giant audiences and rave evaluations.

Earlier than Literary Stardom, Frederick Douglass Confronted a Lifetime of Violence

This text first appeared in America’s Civil Warfare journal

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