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Frederick Douglass' Perfect Pitch

Frederick Douglass' Perfect Pitch

Despite the scorn heaped upon “Founders Chic” after the musical Hamilton, we need more art dedicated to Frederick Douglass’ life and message.

Nicole Penn

The staging of American Prophet: Frederick Douglass in His Own Words was delayed for two years by the COVID-19 pandemic, so my husband and I attended with extra enthusiasm when the production finally premiered at D.C.’s Arena Stage Theater late this summer. Developed by Broadway veterans Charles Randolph-Wright and Marcus Hummon, this remarkable new musical traces some of the most important moments in the life of Frederick Douglass, following his journey from an enslaved youth in Maryland to one of the leading voices in the abolitionist movement.

By the time he died in 1895, Douglass had consciously worked to earn the title of one of the most photographed men in America. However, for all his mastery in captivating the camera lens in his own time, he has received only a fraction of that attention on our modern screens. Besides a short film produced in the 1980s, Douglass’ figure has largely been relegated to brief appearances in Civil War period pieces, his dynamic and multifaceted persona flattened to meet the needs of the larger narrative. Outside of documentaries, he is seldom cast as the protagonist in his own story.

It is perhaps appropriate that one of the first attempts to dramatize Douglass’ life in a full-length work comes to us in the form of a musical. Douglass himself understood well the power of music, writing in his first autobiography how the slave songs that formed the soundtrack of his childhood in the Chesapeake Bay could “do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject.” Music was also integral to the revivals and services of the Christian church, whose tradition Douglass both rebelled against and drew upon to shape his powerful rhetoric.

The paradox of Douglass’ life—and perhaps the reason why it has so seldom been adapted for stage or screen—is that for all the dramatic action of his early years, his most important role was not that of the man of action, but the man of words. American Prophet largely succeeds in taking on the challenge of using Douglass’ words to make him a hero, even as he is flanked by men of action like John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and his two soldiering sons. The musical convincingly suggests that a life dedicated to telling the truth might be the most heroic of all—and in our “post-truth” era, we desperately need to remember Douglass’ example.

1985 marked one of the first years that the portrayal of Douglass transitioned from photograph to film. As part of a collaboration with the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C., Black filmmaker William Greaves wrote and directed Frederick Douglass: An American Life, a thirty-minute biographical film highlighting key moments in Douglass’ life story featuring Hugh Morgan as Douglass. Douglass also made a brief appearance in the third episode of North and South (portrayed by Robert Guillaume), where he gives a version of his 1847 “Love of God, Love of Man, Love of Country” address before an abolitionist meeting attended by South Carolinian Orry Main and Pennsylvanian George Hazard. However, George’s sister Virgilia overshadows this fictional Douglass’ case for moral suasion by fiercely condemning the role of mass rape in perpetuating the slave system, in a speech that arguably cribs the real Douglass’ own insights on the vicious abuse of enslaved women.

In a sense, North and South set the standard for Douglass’ depiction in cinema and television, where his cameos serve more as punctuation for the storyline than a whole sentence. In 1989’s Academy-Award-winning Glory, an uncharacteristically mute Douglass (Raymond St. Jacques) is trotted out in a party scene where Robert Gould Shaw learns that he has been nominated to lead the first all-black Union regiment. Glory at least nods to Douglass’ invaluable efforts in recruiting black soldiers. But 2014’s religious drama Freedom casts him in an entirely imagined role shepherding an enslaved man named Samuel and his family on the final leg of the Underground Railroad, where his few lines of dialogue are oddly spent imploring Samuel’s wife not to lose her personal faith in Jesus Christ.

Douglass makes a more extensive appearance in 2020’s The Good Lord Bird, a miniseries developed by Ethan Hawke and Jason Blum based on James McBride’s novel of an enslaved boy named “Onion” who gets tangled up in John Brown’s scheme to instigate a massive slave revolt. Although this version of Douglass (played by the inimitable Daveed Diggs) is far better developed, he is still a secondary character who serves as narrator, antagonist, and even a source of comic relief. Although the show accurately depicts his home as a refuge for escaped slaves, this Douglass is a self-important, “speechifying parlor man” whose unconventional domestic arrangement with his Black wife and European mistress is played for laughs. He treats Brown condescendingly and feigns support for the plan to take Harper’s Ferry, only to betray Brown at the last minute by refusing to participate. Diggs is perhaps best known for his spirited portrayal of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in 2015’s Hamilton, and it is hard not to wonder how he might have tackled Douglass in a different context. In many ways, the orator’s life is a more natural subject than the first Secretary of the Treasury’s for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fast-rapping musical about a self-taught wunderkind who rose from the lowest ranks of American society to the highest by writing like he’s “running out of time.”

American Prophet does not quite reach Hamilton’s scale in terms of casting, technical complexity, or innovative storytelling. But its value lies in taking Douglass’ story seriously and grounding it in the words that made him such an important force in the fight to end slavery in the United States.

The musical is set in the increasingly tumultuous antebellum and wartime years between 1851 and 1865, with intermittent flashbacks to Douglass’ beginnings in Tuckahoe and Baltimore. As the leading man, Cornelius Smith, Jr. brings both heat and light (along with a rich singing voice) to his interpretation of Douglass that previous depictions have too often eschewed in favor of overwrought gravitas (or, in Diggs’ case, preening slapstick). The stage design of a wooden arena is a simple but effective choice for the story of a man whose life’s work lay in his public speeches.

American Prophet incorporates a wide range of musical styles, including R&B, folk, and the Broadway ballad. However, it is the tradition of the spiritual that weaves in and out of Hummon’s compositions, underscoring the role that religion (and the Old Testament in particular) played in Douglass’ education and his moral awakening. The musical movingly recounts how the gift of literacy that he received from his master’s wife, his careful study of the blatant hypocrisy of Christian slave owners, and his early occupation as a preacher enabled Douglass to develop his powerful critique of slavery in the natural rights tradition. It also follows Douglass’ daring escape to the North and rise to national and international prominence under the mentorship of William Lloyd Garrison, until this “radical pragmatist” (to borrow biographer David Blight’s phrase) grows frustrated with the limits of the Garrisonians’ emphasis on moral suasion and breaks away to establish a newspaper dedicated to advocating for meaningful political action.

According to Smith, Jr., the majority of Douglass’ dialogue and lyrics in American Prophet are pulled almost verbatim from Douglass’ voluminous body of work. In most cases, this works to great effect. There is something especially transportive when the play gives Smith, Jr. the opportunity to bring some of Douglass’ most biting and pivotal lines to life, from his 1847 “Country, Conscience, and the Anti-Slavery Cause” speech to his earth-shattering 1852 Independence Day address where he famously asks, “What to the American slave is your fourth of July?”

In other instances, the musical struggles to convey the full force of Douglass’ prose. For example, instead of embracing the violence of his physical confrontation with the abusive “slave breaker” Edward Covey—whom Douglass described as having strangled “so firmly by the throat, that his blood followed my nails”—the choreography contents itself with having the characters sing measuredly at each other.

Despite these shortcomings, one area where American Prophet shines is in its treatment of Anna Murray Douglass, who is clearly the musical’s heart and soul. Like Hamilton’s Eliza, Anna is a muted figure in the historical record. Unlike Eliza, her illiteracy makes it difficult to say whether her omission from “the narrative” was even much of a choice. In the musical, however, she is a vibrant and courageous free Black woman who loves her husband fiercely and plays an essential role in his escape to freedom (and many others who crossed her threshold along the Underground Railroad). Although American Prophet only gestures toward Douglass’ emotional and physical affairs with other women, Anna’s solos and duets offer a poignant insight into the painful but steadfast loyalty that she maintained for a man “determined to change history” that historians can only surmise.

If Anna is Douglass’ champion, John Brown is a kind of foil. American Prophet portrays Douglass’ friendship with Brown with more of the real tenderness that characterized their friendship, which only underscores Douglass’ anguish when he realizes that Brown’s plan to take Harper’s Ferry is a poorly planned and suicidal gamble. At the same time, when Brown answers Douglass’ objections to the scheme by bellowing that “you’ve got to take hold of history with your hands,” it is as if the musical questions who is really assuming the prophetic mantle in that critical moment.

Unfortunately, American Prophet misses an opportunity to highlight how Douglass funneled his pain over his friend’s death into a project to mythologize Brown as a martyr for freedom, thereby pushing the United States closer to the apocalyptic conflict that Douglass knew was necessary to end slavery. It does not repeat this mistake, however, in its treatment of Abraham Lincoln, who is portrayed as both Douglass’ antagonist and ally. The production sharply illustrates how Douglass sparred with the President over the need for Black soldiers (whose service he knew was essential for achieving voting rights) and Lincoln’s ignominious attempt to get Black leaders to agree to colonization (“We’re all native sons,” he and his compatriots retort in a jaunty blues-rock number). At the same time, when Lincoln is reelected, the musical makes the compelling case that it was Douglass who provided the vocabulary for what political theorist Diana Schaub has called “the original 1619 project.”

Hearing the Second Inaugural in song marked the second time in American Prophet when I had to struggle to hold back tears. The first time was during the ensemble performance of “We Need a Fire” at the end of the first act. In this richly layered signature number, Douglass wields his prophetic voice to explain why the time for ending slavery’s scourge through accommodation and half-measures is over. “It is not the gentle shower that we need, but thunder,” he proclaims, “And for the nation’s sake, we need the earthquake.” That more of the world deserves to hear this powerful anthem is one reason to hope that American Prophet succeeds in making its way to Broadway in the coming years.

A more important reason, however, is that we need more art dedicated to Douglass’ life and message. For all the scorn heaped upon “Founders Chic”—and Douglass is no less than a Refounding Father—stories about the struggles and triumphs of the individual men and women who shaped our past offer a uniquely human way to access their world. These stories help us to better understand the wisdom they gleaned and the problems they failed to solve that together form our shared inheritance.

Douglass fought his entire life to liberate the country he rightfully claimed as his own from the uniquely pernicious lie of human inequality that had infected the United States from its very conception. Although he wielded the force of institutions as his weapons—from the media to the military to the Constitution itself—he never forgot that the most powerful force he could send into battle is the truth itself. And when the struggle to parry the lies suffocating our modern society—about elections, or sound leadership, or just the value of the American experiment itself—seems just a little too hopeless, that is a hymn worth getting stuck in your head.

Nicole Penn, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, is program manager for social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image: Cornelius Smith Jr. (Frederick Douglass) and the cast of American Prophet at Arena Stage, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Margot Schulman)

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