FREDERICK DOUGLASS IN OWN WORDS premieres at Arena Scene
A provocative and inspiring new musical, American Prophet: Frederick Douglass in His Own Words, premieres at Arena Scene now until 28 August. Created by Charles Randolph-Wright (Motown the Musical) and Grammy Award-winning songwriter Marcus Hummon, American prophet draws directly from Douglass’ extensive archive of speeches, writings, and autobiographies to tell the story of his rise to the status of legendary abolitionist, orator, and author by whom he is recognized today. More than just a retelling of Douglas’s life, American prophet is a poignant tale of love, community, hope and resilience against all odds – with a full slate of phenomenal musical numbers.
American prophet is rich in poetry and feeling. Of course, the source material provides a solid foundation in this sense. But the breadth of emotion in the text and the skill of the actors are able to flourish against an elegant, minimalist set of light wood (designed by Arnulfo Maldonado) with lovely lighting too (courtesy of Rui Rita). This minimalistic choice works well, allowing the bigger, bolder elements to shine in a play that refuses to hold back.
From the beginning, American prophet dives headfirst into Douglass’s turbulent and violent early years, recounting the brutality and hypocrisy he experienced from white Americans in the North and South throughout his enslavement and quest for freedom. The first act is action-packed and fast-paced as the play chronicles his early life, quickly providing the audience with the foundation upon which Douglas’s writing and activism was based, from slavery, learning to read and write, falling in love with Anna Murray, escaping to New York, and meeting important anti-slavery figures as he becomes prominent in the movement.
Cornelius Smith Jr. confidently embodies Frederick Douglass throughout. It’s a pleasure to watch him work on stage, especially in these early scenes as he navigates the varying levels of maturity and self-assurance that Douglass possesses throughout this assortment of foundational memories. As both the older Douglass looking back on history and the younger Douglass living it directly, his presence on stage is compelling. Smith Jr.’s prowess on stage, further enhanced by the power of musical numbers and the strength of his voice, encourages the audience to build an appreciation for the poeticism and oratorical power of Douglass himself. To bring Douglas’s words back to life so skillfully is truly something special.
While the story centers on Douglass’s rise as an abolitionist speaker and author, his wife Anna takes on much of the narrative power. Anna Murray Douglass (Kristolyn Lloyd), like many women in history, is a largely ignored figure despite her role in the anti-slavery movement. Drawing from stories passed down through generations of Anna and Frederick’s descendants, American prophet reintroduces Anna into Frederick’s history and the wider abolitionist movement as she calls out the way she, and many like her, have been forced into obscurity. “I am the flesh and bones of his future stone face,” Anna sings at one point. Fortunately, her relationship with Frederick and her role in enabling both his freedom and his abolitionist work are central to the story American prophet recounts Douglas’s rise to fame.
As such, American prophet takes important steps to interrogate an all-too-common habit many of us have: iconizing and idolizing prominent historical figures. Anna is Frederick’s counterpart, confidante and companion. Time after time in American prophet, especially in the emotionally turbulent second act, Anna is the necessary voice of reason and, above all, hope. She supports Douglass as he struggles with anger, fame, self-doubt, despair, and the sacrifices he must make in pursuit of a higher cause. She is the key to him retaining enough hope to keep fighting, even as the enormity of the battle before him threatens to overwhelm him.
This is what is needed American prophet as a historical retelling to the next level. The less glamorous emotional and domestic work done in the shadows is just as important to the success of movements like this. Liberating work cannot be done in silos, the show asserts. Reinforcing this idea with Anna’s character, the show lovingly demonstrates how our networks of loved ones sustain us, sustain us, through even the hardest of times.
American prophet is now playing on the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater through August 28, 2022. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission. Buy tickets here.
Image credit: Margot Schulman.