Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
American Prophet: Frederick Douglass in His Own Words
Also see Susan's reviews of Four Plays at the Contemporary American Theater Festival and Blue Man Group
Charles Randolph-Wright (director and co-bookwriter) and Marcus Hummon (composer, lyricist, and co-bookwriter) have worked hard to bring Douglass' story to a wider audience through an overview of his life. The musical follows the man (Cornelius Smith Jr.) from his early life as an enslaved child on a Maryland plantation; his thirst for education as a first step out of bondage; his meeting with Anna Murray (Kristolyn Lloyd), the free woman of color whom he married; and his growing influence, including his interactions with John Brown (Chris Roberts) and Abraham Lincoln (Thomas Adrian Simpson).
Smith is commanding from his first appearance, pointing out the need for enslaved people to hold on to their memories and become avid learners. He also wants to set the record straight: "Slaves sing when they're most unhappy," he tells people who admire the beauty of spirituals without understanding the desperate hope that underlies them.
The problem with making Douglass' story a musical is that Hummon's songs detract from the musicality and dignity inherent in Douglass' own oratory. The language reaches beyond its own time in many ways–during the Civil War, Douglass called on Lincoln to pay Black soldiers the same wages as white soldiers; he also strongly supported giving women the vote–and too often the songs are less effective than the spoken words would be.
As famous as Douglass was, in his own time and thereafter, Anna is less well known, and Lloyd's performance brings her to vibrant life. While her husband was traveling to England to promote the cause of abolition, or when he started producing his own newspaper in their home, she kept the family together, bore five children, and did whatever she had to do to help him achieve the goals they shared.
Most of the 15 cast members step into several roles: stentorian Simpson plays abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in addition to Lincoln, whose ideas about the future for free slaves changed over time, and Cicily Daniels shines as the grandmother who raised young Douglass. (A comic scene with Erica Aubrey as Mary Todd Lincoln and Daniels as her dressmaker and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley, seems out of place, however.)
Arnulfo Maldonado's scenic design is an abstract, tiered semicircular space that stands in for everything from plantation fields to lecture halls and the White House. Music director Joseph Joubert performs on keyboard in front of the stage while ably conducting six offstage musicians.
Nettie Washington Douglass, great-great-granddaughter of Frederick Douglass (and great-granddaughter of Booker T. Washington), and her son Kenneth B. Morris Jr., were both in attendance on opening night.
American Prophet: Frederick Douglass in His Own Words continues through August 28, 2022, in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.
Book by Charles Randolph-Wright and Marcus Hummon