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Theater Review: ‘American Prophet’ Frederick Douglass in His Own Words at Arena Stage

Theater Review: ‘American Prophet’ Frederick Douglass in His Own Words at Arena Stage

Cornelius Smith Jr. like Frederick Douglass and the cast of “American Prophet.” Photo by Margot Schulman.

The spirit of Frederick Douglass once again graces the nation’s capital in a world premiere of “American Prophet.” The musical, based on his writings and speeches, makes a resounding call for racial justice in America more than 125 years after the great orator, author and abolitionist walked the streets of Washington, DC and settled in Anacostia.

…powerful new musical…If you only see one show this summer, make it ‘American Prophet’.

Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, with music by Grammy Award winner Marcus Hummon (both also wrote the book), “American Prophet” is filled to the brim with catchy tunes and memorable melodies that keep the action moving at a brisk pace. The story encompasses Douglass’s years as an enslaved child in Maryland, his escape to freedom, and finally his rise to fame as the founder of the civil rights movement in America.

Remarkable achievements abound. Douglass’ grandmother, Betsey Bailey (Cicily Daniels), sings a haunting, “If I Were You’re Mother,” to young Frederick Douglass (Cornelius Smith Jr.) who has only the vaguest memory of his mother, after being taken from her as an infant. When Douglass meets his wife, Anna Murray Douglass (Kristolyn Lloyd) for the first time, the two sing a touching duet, “Children of the Same River.” The second act features abolitionist John Brown’s “Hands,” sung as he prepares to take up arms to free the enslaved. Two notable duets, “I Love a Man” and “Let the Storm Come,” are performed by Frederick and Anna as expressions of the challenges they have experienced in committing to the fight and each other. A reprise of “We Need a Fire,” sung by the entire ensemble, closes the show.

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Thomas Adrian Simpson (Abraham Lincoln) plays a likable and honorable Lincoln, while also communicating the president’s own need to evolve in his understanding of the slavery issue. Kurt Boem (Reverend Gore and Edward Covey) corner the market on white male arrogance, and Chris Roberts embodies the fury and impatience of John Brown, a visionary abolitionist ahead of his time. Kristolyn Lloyd projects Anna Douglas’ sharp intelligence and fierce dedication to the cause, and Cornelius Smith Jr. – elegant, erudite and fiery – projects such an authenticity that he might just be Douglass back from the grave.

The drama of a nation marching towards civil war takes place on a minimalist set by Arnulfo Moldonado, which allows a greater emphasis on the intensity of the subject matter, powerfully delivered score under the direction of music director, Joseph Joubert, who also provided orchestrations, and lush period costumes by Dede Ayite.

This powerful new musical speaks to modern America’s ongoing racism in the words of an American prophet—words that still ring true, still wield raw power, and can still convince us that “we need a fire.” If you only see one show this summer, make it American Prophet.

Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.

“American Prophet” runs through August 28, 2022 at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC 20024. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 202-488-3300 or click here . Arena Stage requires all patrons to provide proof of full vaccination and wear a mask while inside the Mead Center as well as in the theater.

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