By Rod Ross
Wednesday, August 3, 2022
You owe it to yourself to catch the “world-premiere musical” currently playing at Washington’s Arena Stage through August 28th. The production, with Abraham Lincoln as a key supporting character, bears the title AMERICAN PROPHET: Frederick Douglass in His Own Words.
This play focuses on Douglass and his life’s history (including his name change from Frederick Bailey to Frederick Douglass), and with a spotlight on his wife, Anna, who served as his lead support. The play humanizes Douglass, giving the audience a better understanding of the man himself. As the title suggests, much of the script, including the musical numbers, utilizes Douglass’ own words, and doing so works well, both in the spoken and vocalized portions of the story. Cornelius Smith Jr. as Douglass and Kristolyn Lloyd as Anna Murray Douglass were both superb in their portrayals of these historic figures.
The play is remarkable entertainment, featuring an excellent cast with understandable diction, great voices and creatively choreographed dance numbers. The staging is unique, using concentric platforms and colorful costumes that evoke mid-19th century America. Especially powerful are the interactions between Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison regarding the anti-slavery cause and with John Brown on how best to effect change.
Thomas Adrian Simpson portrays William Lloyd Garrison in the first act, Abraham Lincoln in the second. Lincoln first appears reciting his famed reply to Horace Greeley’s prayer of 20 millions, indicating that he’ll be guided by his priority of working to save the Union. Douglass clearly regards Lincoln with skepticism, with Simpson reacting accordingly. As Douglass gains an appreciation for Lincoln, Simpson’s portrayal of Lincoln changes. He achieves noteworthy stature as he becomes the lead singer for the ensemble’s rendition of that portion of the 2nd Inaugural with its sentiment that the bloody conflict seemingly has been part of the Lord’s plan for America.
Lincoln’s well-orchestrated conference in the White House with a delegation of area clergymen, designed to help prepare Northern public opinion for the coming Emancipation Proclamation, also is part of the story. The delightful song-and-dance that follows the meeting scene highlights what the delegation could have said/ should have said in response to Lincoln’s suggestion that Blacks would be best off by emigrating back to Africa.
As one who long has had an interest in Mary Lincoln, I much appreciated her sympathetic portrayal. In a key scene, Mary Lincoln arranges for Elizabeth Keckley to listen in as Douglass meets privately with Lincoln in the White House. During that meeting Douglass argued for equal pay for Black troops. Douglass comes away from that meeting thinking that while he is less than satisfied with Lincoln’s verbal responses, he is totally satisfied with Lincoln as a man of integrity.
The Lincoln assassination as portrayed in the play could not have been staged more dramatically, amidst the celebration of news of Lee’s surrender to Grant. In a sense, what follows after the assassination could be viewed as an epilogue, with Douglass and the cast envisioning what the true vision for America should be and how bringing about that vision will require agitation, agitation, agitation.
This is a powerful play, one that has relevance today. The production too has a huge potential as an educational tool on slavery as the reason for the Civil War. One hopes that many will take advantage of this potential.
(Photo credit: Arena Stage)