Douglass' words brought to contemporary light in one-man play
Linda Armstrong | 4/12/2011, 4:35 p.m.
Playwright/actor Roger Guenveur Smith is performing his one-man play, "Frederick Douglass Now," at The Donaghy Theatre at the Irish Arts Center, located at 553 West 51st Street. Smith is performing the play in collaboration with another piece that looks at Frederick Douglass' life called "The Cambria." The two pieces have been brought together by the Irish Arts Center in association with the Classical Theatre of Harlem and are presented as "Cambria/Douglass". They play on the same days at different times.
Now, most of you will be familiar with Smith from "A Huey P. Newton Story," the play he wrote and performed that focused on the life of the late, great Huey P. Newton. With his current show opening this past weekend, Smith recently took the time to sit down with the AmNews to talk about the piece and explain the significance about doing a play on Frederick Douglass.
As a boy, Smith was first introduced to Frederick Douglass at home. His mother had Douglass' narrative in their home library. Years later as a student at Occidental College when he was looking for a project, "Douglass' story bubbled up in my imagination," he recalled.
The thought of doing a one-man show on Douglass came to him after he was exposed to Hal Holbrook's solo performance of Mark Twain. He recalled being fascinated by one person holding the stage while playing a historical character.
"I started off with Douglass' archives and began to edit them into an evening of theater. The process has been reworking, editing and complimenting Douglass' words with my own and with contemporary images," he said.
Smith uses hip-hop and reggae music to tell Douglass' story and bring it to a contemporary generation. He has presented the show at La Mama, the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center.
Going into great detail about the work, Smith said, "'Frederick Douglass Now' is an attempt to get to the relevance of this man's work for this time. I frame the piece with my own prologue and epilogue; the body is the words of Frederick Douglass, and it's in chronological order. It provides us with the legacy of slavery and the struggle. He aligned himself with the women's movement, the temperance moment, anti-drug activity in our time.
"He was able to stress his humanity to look at the struggle for freedom in a universal way. Douglass was an articulate speaker, writer, editor and publisher and recognized his power. I end this piece with the rap: 'Who do we need? Frederick Douglas/And when do we need him? Now.'"
Smith hopes that the audiences who come to the show "try to engage the spirit of resistance embodied by Frederick Douglas and recognize the crucial importance of education for our youth. He risked everything to educate himself and many people. The power of the word is paramount in the legacy of Frederick Douglass. The way he used language was profound and poetic with a political impact. It's tremendous that he could so beautiful use this language that was denied him in his youth. He escaped slavery at 21 and refined his gift.
"There is that potential in every youth and it takes that particular encouragement and spark. The great lesson in Frederick Douglass' life is that we all have the potential for tremendous achievement, no matter what degrading circumstances we find ourselves in," Smith said.
When it comes to education, this production emphasizes literacy, an area that was major for Douglass.
"The struggle for literacy is a very fundamental issue, and we see that Douglass' struggle was for literacy--not just for himself, but for his family members and his community. I say in the concluding rap, 'We must learn to read, to write, organize ourselves to fight. Fight for what? For our life!' People can't effect positive change if they don't have literary means to do so," Smith explains.
"Frederick Douglass Now" will play through October 25. To find out about this and other Irish Repertory Theatre productions, go to www.irishartscenter.org.