As famous and fiery an orator as 19th-century America ever produced, Frederick Douglass carved his name into history — and onto bridges and avenues yet to be built — through the power and rightness of his words.
So the creators of American Prophet: Frederick Douglass in His Own Words (★★★☆☆), in its world-premiere production at Arena Stage, wisely draw directly from the source for their expansive, though not exhaustive, biography of the great abolitionist, author, publisher, statesman, escaped slave, and public speaker.
The bulk of Douglass’ lines and lyrics in the show are words that the man either spoke or wrote, interpreted and interpolated fluidly by book writers Charles Randolph-Wright and Marcus Hummon.
Randolph-Wright also directs, while Grammy-winner Hummon composed music and lyrics for the score, which floats between R&B, pop, and gospel influences, but stays too comfortably within theater conventions.
The music doesn’t start down the most adventurous path. Opening with Douglass plaintively singing “What Does Freedom Look Like?” feels way too obvious.
The follow-up number, “Going to the Great House,” turns out to be a sharply satirical subversion of happy-dancing-slave tropes, but then shifts into a sober — and, again, very on-the-nose — “Wade in the Water,” complete with choreography reminiscent of Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations.”
Fortunately, the show goes bolder in its characterization of Frederick Douglass. One of the most photographed figures of his time, he intentionally never smiled in front of the camera — a point referenced in the show — as he wanted to project the image of the serious social reformer.
The dozens of portraits that Douglass posed for thus offer but a hint of his true personality, and despite his renown as a speech-maker, no known recordings of him exist. (He died in 1895.) Randolph-Wright and Hummon have license then to imagine Douglass to be as big and brash, good-humored, and romantic as they please, allowing Cornelius Smith, Jr. to portray the man with a dynamic intensity that galvanizes the production.
Smith expresses the character most vividly through his piercing eyes and supple voice, often paired in uplifting harmony with Kristolyn Lloyd, portraying Frederick’s steadfastly supportive wife Anna. The pair, and the entire cast, get a great assist from Mia Neal’s wigs and makeup, and Dede Ayite’s fine costumes.
It’s with Anna’s help that Frederick escapes to freedom, venturing from Baltimore to New York City, where the slave Frederick Bailey first adopts the surname Douglass. His loving wife wonders in “Your Star” if her name and deeds will be remembered alongside her husband’s.
A song for countless women and spouses whose contributions to history faded into a famous partner’s shadow, the number balances the musical’s respect for history and its modern sensibility.
American Prophet best strikes that balance in “We Need a Fire,” a call to action led by Douglass and abolitionist compatriot John Brown, impressively portrayed by Chris Roberts as a bright-eyed zealot for the cause of freeing the slaves.
In words that Douglass originally spoke to a 4th of July crowd in Rochester, in 1852, Douglass and Brown raise a rallying cry that sounds no less savvy today. “It’s not light that we need, but fire/It is not the gentle shower, but thunder/We need the storm.”
Employing Douglass’ speeches and writing to persuasive effect, Randolph-Wright and Hummon forge a powerful connection to the influential orators and movements that have followed him. Speaking or singing, this Frederick Douglass commands the stage — and set designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s open, rounded pulpit of golden-hued lumber — while stoking the fires of freedom-fighters present and future.
American Prophet runs through August 28 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $51 to $105. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.
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