Theater archives

Channeling the Abolitionist in Frederick Douglass Now


The first three words of Roger Guenveur Smith’s solo show, Frederick Douglass Now, currently running at the Irish Arts Center, sound as if they might have come from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Douglass’s bestselling 1845 autobiography. “I am a fugitive slave,” Smith solemnly intones. But he then races away from any definable source material, continuing, “I live underneath the Hollywood Freeway or the Brooklyn Bridge somewhere, under the rainbow of my coalition kept warm by blazing barrels of trash scraps from the canefields and the fast-food establishments.” In this feverish speech, he offers a phantasmagoria of African-American experience, speeding from overseers to O.J., from the Underground Railroad to Rosa Parks, from chitlins to crack—”a nightmare called history.”

Following this tumult of prose, Smith exchanges his words for Douglass’s, reciting the abolitionist’s letters, speeches, and newspaper columns. This includes a powerful missive Douglass addressed to his former owner, Thomas Auld. Though couched in civil language and closing with an invitation to enjoy Douglass’s hospitality (“I should esteem it a privilege to set you an example as to how mankind ought to treat each other”), it also reveals Douglass’s grievance and rage as he attacks Auld for the treatment of his brothers and sisters, yet unfree, and ends pointedly: “I am your fellow man, but not your slave.”

Smith has performed this piece for nearly 20 years; occasionally, it shows. When he portrays Douglass, he sometimes seems detached from the material, merely repeating well-rehearsed gestures and phrases. But in the play’s first speech and in the concluding section, in which his words move from speech to chant, from chant to song, he gives an effortful, forceful performance. As Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

In A Boy and His Soul, at the Vineyard Theatre, actor and writer Colman Domingo describes his own struggle: coming of age in ’80s West Philly amid backyard barbecues, Jheri curls, and Good Times. This is a world that Frederick Douglass enabled—would he have celebrated or reviled it?

At the beginning of the show, an adult Domingo returns to that Philadelphia home, preparing it for a real estate showing. He finds the house in disarray, looking “like a worn-out ho after Fleet Week.” Yet once he descends to the basement, he makes a welcome discovery: a cache of soul records. The albums flood him with vivid memories of his youth and of the music that sustained him. As he plays different tracks, he assumes the voices of his parents and siblings, and of his own adolescent self, laboring to accept his sexuality.

A Boy tells a slighter tale than Frederick Douglass Now, but Domingo is a delightful performer, and his insights into music’s pleasure and solace are compelling. Back in New York and victim to depression, he finds succor in these old records: “I’ll just keep a song in my heart like Mom says and keep on moving,” he declares. No struggle, no progress—sure. But what good is that, Domingo might ask, without soul, without joy?