In this pivotal moment in America’s history in which constitutional rights and decades-old notions of privilege, power and supremacy continue to be reexamined, refuted and rescinded, the words of Frederick Douglass have fittingly come roaring back in a world premiere musical, “American Prophet.”
Appearing now through Aug. 28 at Arena Stage in Southwest, the mesmerizing musical features the speeches and writing of Douglass, along with a sizzling score replete with new melodies and an original script penned by Charles Randolph-Wright (Arena’s “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story,” Broadway’s “Motown the Musical”) and songwriter Marcus Hummon.
Set in our nation’s turbulent past of 1851 through 1865 with flashbacks to Douglass’ formative years, the play opens as Cornelius Smith Jr. (Frederick Douglass), in his Arena Stage debut, unequivocally states, “I have no love for America,” before launching into the song “What Does Freedom Look Like?”
As he further explores this newfound notion for those like Douglass born into slavery, or even if free men and women, still live in fear – treated more like property than people – the song asks us to consider what does freedom move like, sound like while declaring that one of the most essential characteristics of freedom remains “it never leaves someone behind.”
Smith delivers a breathtaking performance in word and song bearing the kind of countenance and gaze that one might imagine Douglass wore and exuded with little or no effort.
When he abandons his slave name of Bailey and chooses Douglass both for himself and his wife, Anna, the significance and power of one’s name cannot be ignored as explained in the song, “A Name,” as led by Smith, Kristolyn Lloyd (Anna Murray Douglass), Thomas Adrian Simpson (Abraham Lincoln/William Lloyd Garrison).
Lloyd, a Grammy- and Emmy-winning actress, brings to the forefront an often-ignored but essential part of Douglass’s evolution as a freeman and his rise as an abolitionist, publisher and orator – the unflinching support she provides for him and their children and the lessons about freedom which she has learned as a freewoman and which she imparts to her husband.
Incidentally, it soon becomes clear why Lloyd has achieved such an impressive list of stage credits to her name as listed in her production biography – she’s an amazing actress with a voice “to die for,” as the saying goes.
Actors in recent years, particularly those who hope to make it to Broadway or to star in reputable regional productions as represented in the works of theatres like Arena Stage, agree that they must be prepared to sing, dance and act. And the cast of “American Prophet” definitely deliver the goods.
In addition to the actors mentioned earlier, you may want to look out for Cicily Daniels, who makes her Arena Stage debut in several roles, most notably as Betsey Bailey, Douglass’ grandmother. The Potomac, Maryland, native sings a song with heart-wrenching lyrics, “If I Were Your Mother,” that describes the pain and despair experienced by enslaved women whose children would routinely be snatched from their arms as either the child or the mother were sold to another master.
In her comments provided in the production’s program, Molly Smith, Arena Stage artistic director, reminds us of the arduous process and delays she and her team faced due to the pandemic before bringing this musical to the stage.
But we are better because of their diligence.
“The idea of placing some of Frederick Douglass’ words into music is transcendent,” said Smith, who marked her 25th anniversary with the start of this new season.
“What Douglass has to say about freedom and life in America continues to resonate with great power today … The songs are electrifying … [and] created a perfect avenue for a new generation to learn and understand about the great orator – and perhaps even shed new light on Douglass’ ideas,” she said.
If you don’t do anything else this summer, be sure to see “American Prophet.” In fact, this writer plans to return for a second encounter.