Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Frederick Douglass Now
Penumbra Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of A Steady Rain


Roger Guenveur Smith
Photo by Caroline Yang
In fall 2014 actor and writer Roger Guenveur Smith brought his exquisite one-man play about Rodney King and the ensuing Los Angeles riots to Penumbra Theatre under the auspices of its Claude Edison Purdy Individual Artist Festival. Smith is back with another stunning one-man performance, Frederick Douglass Now for four-performances.

Frederick Douglass Now is not a bio-play about the life of the great 19th century African-American leader who spoke boldly and eloquently for abolition of slavery, as well as for women's suffrage, as well as for the rights of black men and women after the civil war. Smith does not provide the outline of Douglass' biography, with little about his family and personal life. Rather, he curates among the many profound written works by the noted orator, minister, and advocate for abolition and human rights, adding a bit of his own dialogue to bridge varying reflections Douglass made on his life and times. He then places those original statements into contemporary contexts, using motifs such as rap, smooth R 'n' B, call and response audience chants, and in other ways bearing witness to the continued relevance and need for the kind of leadership Douglass provided.

With his wispy voice, sinewy body and flashing eyes, Smith is a riveting presence. The stage is bare, save for an American flag hanging limply from the ceiling, falling just inches short of touching the floor. In reference to the flag, Smith provides a soulful, a capella rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," with every word stretched, not to showcase vocal prowess but to draw out its truth—or, in too many cases, falsehood. Over the course of 75 minutes, Smith becomes Douglass, but not the Frederick Douglass garbed in the 19th century attire we see in 150-year-old photos, but as Douglass would look today wearing a smartly tailored three-piece suit one might find at Joseph A. Bank. At one point, his own cell phone rings and, looking embarrassed, he takes the call. Then he winks to the audience as he mouths the name "Harriet Tubman." He praises her work, recognizing her efforts as hands-on help to free slaves, one at a time, while he worked towards larger changes, striving to affect policy and conscience. He tells her "I work by day, you work by night."

Frederick Douglass Now includes some of Douglass' better known writings, such as "What is the Fourth of July to a Slave?" and his "Letter to Thomas Auld, My Former Master" (published in 1848, ten years after Douglass escaped and two years after supporters raised funds to "purchase" Douglass' freedom), in which he signs off "your fellow man, but not your slave." Smith touches on Douglass' views of Abraham Lincoln—who originally opposed only the expansion and not the existence of slavery—yet, moved beyond all means of expression by the Emancipation Proclamation, his travels to Great Britain and Ireland to raise funds and curry support, his publication of the abolitionist newspaper The North Star, his encounters with John Brown, and his own son's inability to find work after returning from service as a Union solider in the Civil War. In one of the most moving segments, Douglass/Smith (the two become one in the eyes of this beholder) describes his first questioning at the age of six, as to why he was born to be a slave and to serve white people.

Smith draws the audience into his performance, so that it becomes a shared experience. Smith passes out pumpkin seeds to those in the front row as symbols of new and bountiful life that will spring from the earth. He invites the audience to join him in the spiritual "Get On Board, Little Children," and later has the audience chant with him Douglass' words: "Without struggle there will be no progress". The performance ends with Smith calling "Who do we need?" to which the audience responds "Frederick Douglass," then "When do we need him?" and a decisive "Now!" This is not a contrived effect to end his show on a high note, but the genuine response by an audience drawn in, educated and elevated by the wisdom and power of the man, and the tragedy of his unfinished work.

Wu Chen Khoo's lighting design adds immensely to the production, altering mood and tone throughout. There is no director credited in the show program, and most likely Smith capably directs himself as he did for his Rodney King play. (The 2017 film of the Rodney King play and Smith's 2001 play about Huey Newton were both directed by Spike Lee.)

To the degree that Penumbra audiences are likely to be self-selected to stand in agreement with the views being espoused, this becomes a celebration of those who struggled in the past and an affirmation of the need for to carry the struggle forward. Frederick Douglass Now serves as balm for the discord of society. It is an injection of adrenaline to feel empowered for work that cries to be done. And it is a mesmerizing performance that dispenses grace, humor, depth and generosity. We hope that Smith, perhaps with the directorial eye of his friend Spike Lee, will put this production on film to allow many more people to be moved by its artistry and inspired by its call to action.

Frederick Douglass Now, through January 28, 2018, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets are $25.00, $20 for seniors; $15 for college/university students with valid ID. For tickets call 651-224-3180 or go to www.penumbratheatre.org.

Writer: Roger Guenveur Smith; Lighting Designer: Wu Chen Koo Penumbra Lighting Designer: Sarah Brandner; Sound Designer: Marc Anthony Thompson; Technical Director: Kirk Wilson; Stage Manager: Mary Winchell; Assistant Stage Manager: Salima Seale.

Cast: Roger Guenveur Smith

Frederick Douglass Now is presented as part of the Claude Edison Purdy Individual Artist Festival by Penumbra Theatre Company, Sarah Bellamy, Artistic Director.


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