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Wall Street Journal - Review

By Charles Isherwood

Aug. 11, 2022 6:04 pm ET


Frederick Douglass is an important figure in American history, and yet his remarkable life—born into slavery, he escaped to become perhaps the most eloquent writer and orator in the abolition movement—has not entered popular culture in the way that the lives of other notable Americans have.


“American Prophet,” a stirring new musical at Arena Stage in Washington, attempts with vigor but also delicacy to illuminate his pivotal importance in the battle to end slavery in America. The show is subtitled “Frederick Douglass in His Own Words,” and features a book by Charles Randolph-Wright and Marcus Hummon (Mr. Randolph-Wright also directs), and music and lyrics also by Mr. Hummon, a Grammy-winning composer. Thanks to their focus on Douglass’s celebrated speeches and writings, his words ring forth with scalding power. The creators aim to honor Douglass’s lyrical and incendiary oratory, but also, I would suppose, they realize that his rhetorical powers best their own—and almost anyone’s.


Douglass’s story is presented with an admirable lack of the usual blandishments of musical theater. The set consists of plain wooden risers; the choreography, by Lorna Ventura, is minimal, graceful and piercingly expressive. The cast numbers just 15, including ensemble members. Douglass’s life unfolds with bracing simplicity, even if, given the breadth of his achievement, the musical sometimes feels like a condensed history lesson. (David W. Blight’s definitive biography runs to more than 750 pages.)


Cornelius Smith Jr., who plays Douglass, establishes himself, with a performance of uncompromising strength and power, as an actor of the first rank. From the opening moments, when Mr. Smith recites from one of Douglass’s most famous and uncompromising speeches (“I have no love for America, as such; I have no patriotism”), he commands our attention. Mr. Smith is not here to ingratiate or charm, but to depict with forthrightness the truth of the man and his experience. Grave, radiating an almost hostile dignity, and clearly assured of the moral validity of his cause, Mr. Smith’s Douglass repudiates any notion that the character will be depicted with sentimentality.


The story begins with the early years (the musical proceeds mostly along chronological lines, which can have a stultifying effect), when Douglass first rebelled against the unnatural nature of his relationship to the world. As a young man, he suffered the dehumanizing cruelty of slavery.


These early scenes are sharp and affecting, and bring us into the quickly developing moral consciousness of the character, who moves between a harsh environment and a more welcoming one—he is taught to read and write, at least for a while.


He meets his wife, Anna Murray (a radiant Kristolyn Lloyd), a free woman who helps him escape to the North, and with electric urgency finds his voice as one of the galvanizing forces of the abolitionist movement.


Mr. Randolph-Wright and Mr. Hummon employ music, often an emotional emollient, in stimulating metatheatrical ways. In a striking early scene, Douglass watches as we see slaves singing and dancing in the stereotypical ways they often have been depicted. He shuts the number down with a sharp rebuke aimed straight at the audience: This is a canard.


Later, Douglass chafes at the way the white leaders of the abolitionist movement exploited him; Douglass’s friendliness toward John Brown (Chris Roberts) cools when Brown hatches the plan for the doomed assault on Harpers Ferry, and Douglass reacts with dismay. He also shows icy irritation when the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (Thomas Adrian Simpson) suggests that Douglass adopt “the accent of an illiterate slave” when proselyting for the movement in England and Ireland; Garrison’s paternalism is plainly exposed.


Mr. Hummon’s music plays a crucial role in avoiding obvious or superficially uplifting depictions of this history. It has a subtlety rare in musical theater; the composer and lyricist gives precedence to the music in Douglass’s oratory. We are led by the terrific musical director, Joseph Joubert, on keyboards, into the thoughts, the words, the feelings. The music only occasionally strikes the soaring notes you might expect, and avoids the overuse of spirituals and hymns. (Although the classic “Wade in the Water” is effectively sampled.)


“American Prophet” casts a mildly critical eye on Abraham Lincoln (Mr. Simpson), who had to be prodded, by Douglass and others, to take a more forthright position on condemning slavery. The musical presents him with a gentle touch of caricature before allowing his humanity and courageous leadership to shine forth later.


Although it ends on a hortatory note—a call to action—the show’s most powerful moment may be the stark representation of Douglass’s famous speech ruminating on the meaning of Independence Day for African-Americans: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”


“American Prophet” reminds us that while people lionized in hindsight and even contemporaneously may be acclaimed for their wisdom, prophecies are subject to the vicissitudes of history, which sometimes takes the long way around to righting wrongs.



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