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Frederick Douglass dances into pop culture thanks to new musical

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It opens, aptly, with a song about freedom. And Frederick Douglass sings.

yes, that Frederick Douglass was an abolitionist, author, and political thinker who escaped slavery and became one of the most influential and photographed Americans of the 19th century. Disguised as actor Cornelius Smith Jr., he sings the key to activism in the new musical American Prophet. The musical will premiere on the Arena stage in Washington, where Douglas moved to in the late 2000s. His life, and where he died, in 1895 at the age of 77.

Not only singing, but also dancing. Staring from countless black-and-white images, its majestic figure moves to the beat of Nashville-based country music composer Marcus’ Hamon score. “Of course I danced!” said Charles Randolph Wright, the musical’s director and co-writer. “I mean, he met his wife at a dance. He was fascinated by everything. He learned the violin in his later years. He had that mind, that inquisitiveness that never stopped.” I did.”

The long-running show, postponed by the pandemic shutdown, is one of Arena’s efforts to wrap important American history in popular culture. (It officially opens July 28 at the Krieger Theater at the Arena.) Other recent appearances include the Broadway revival of “1776,” which was cast with only female, non-binary, and transgender actors. The show seeks to reconstruct our roots. national story. “America’s Prophet” sows new seeds for understanding how we have sought to become a more just nation.

In times of turbulence, theater still shows the way

The Arena company boasts considerable pedigree. Hammon and Randolph Wright (the latter of whom directed the recent Tony Award-nominated revival of Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind) decided to employ Douglas’s plethora of words in about four-fifths of the script. selected. If that wasn’t enough credibility, they turned to Douglas’ maternal great-grandson, Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., for guidance. As a result, Morris became the “Douglas family consultant” on the project.

In an interview with Zoom, Morris said, “He’s on this pedestal as an iconic figure in history, so I wanted to humanize him. , especially on the issue of ending slavery, but also on education, the right to vote, and the equality of women: “I am part of a family, and I have worked with the scholars who have studied my family.” I know there are,” Morris added.

How Douglas’ amazing story of life and exploits — his breakaway and liberation movement, his career as a politician and publisher, and his unparalleled public speaking — is condensed into two hours of commentary and song. It’s hard to imagine This seems to have struck a chord with his creative team as well. They decided to focus on the events of his biography leading up to the Civil War — what Randolph Wright describes as Douglas’ “bad times, his activist days, his rebellious days, when he was in his 40s.” In the days when he was becoming an American, he called the Prophet. ”

For Hammon, a Grammy-winning songwriter who has composed for the likes of Tim McGraw, Wynonna Judd and the Dixie Chicks, Douglas’ own writings could propel the show’s melodies that cemented his creative path. “It was ultimately poetry in his language that got me listening to music,” Hamon explained. “What we need is fire, not light. It’s not a gentle shower, it’s thunder.” In other words, it’s poetry. There are times when his speeches and his writings simply change gears and become poetry. ”

Hammon embarked on a modest song cycle about Douglas after reading one of his three autobiographies staged at a Nashville church in the mid-2010s. “It was good, it was fun, but when I kept reading and got to Life and Times, [of Frederick Douglass]’, and then I thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s a big story here,'” Hamon said. I didn’t, I’m still trying, but I knew I needed help. I had a friend who said, “I know who you are.” ”

That man was Randolph Wright, an accomplished director of arenas (Lynn Nottage’s “Ruin”). His Broadway musical theater projects include the show ‘Motown’ built around his Berry Gordy exploits as an impresario. Having also developed material for a piece about actor Sidney Poitier, Randolph Wright wasn’t sure if another slice of towering figure drama would be appropriate.

“My immediate reaction was, ‘Hmm,'” he said, mimicking fatigue. I was. “And the first song,” added the director, “went through my body.”

Charles Randolph Wright: “I have big dreams. That’s what I do.”

Morris, along with his mother, Nettie Washington Douglas, founded the Frederick Douglas Family Initiative in 2007, an organization to raise awareness of racism and human trafficking. He attended a musical reading at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 2019, where he met Randolph Wright. “We became best friends. Now we’re brothers. Then I officially joined Legacy as his consultant on the project,” he says. The advice he imparted has become central to the enterprise.

“I told Marcus and Charles early on that my great-great-great-great-grandmother, Anna, needed to be portrayed and treated with the dignity and respect she deserved. I didn’t receive it inside.”

Frederick’s first wife, Anna Douglas, embodied by Christine Lloyd, original cast member of Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen, is elevated to the role of a co-star. “She was a radical freedom fighter in her own right,” Morris said. Morris’ illustrious ancestry extends beyond the Douglas family. He is also the great-grandson of Booker T. Washington. “Anna and Frederick have been married forty-four years. They had five children. They had twenty-one grandchildren. And she was a very important part of this.” (1882) Douglas remarried after Anna died in

A musical that might expand Douglas’ place in the popular imagination is both an emotional mission for Morris and an appropriate amplification of his legacy. In fact, the filmmakers alluded to Morris that Douglas was the “inventor of the selfie.”

“He was talking about selfies about presenting yourself and putting yourself out there the way you want people to see you, not the flirtatious things people do,” Morris said. , you are forming your own identity.He didn’t take the first picture of himself, but he put himself in the public consciousness the way you want to be seen. I came up with the idea of

Randolph Wright and Hammon now have a say in how Douglas is seen and heard. And yes, even how he dances.

american prophet, music and lyrics by Marcus Hammon, book by Hammon and Charles Randolph Wright. Directed by Randolph Wright. On the Arena Stage at 1101 Sixth St. SW through August 28th. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.