Sign up to stay connected
Get the top stories of the day around the DMV.
For multi-hyphenated artist Marcus Hummon, “American Prophet,” has been a seven-year labor of love, now beginning to gain acclaim with six 2023 Helen Hayes Awards nominations. Inspired by the eerily and powerfully poignant words of Frederick Douglass, Hummon, who grew up in the D.C. area, continues to be excited about the work and the piece’s possibilities for growth after its premiere at Arena Stage last summer.
“As a writer of theatre, it makes me feel excited about continuing this part of my life– the validation,” said Hummon, composer and co-book writer of “American Prophet” and a 2023 Helen Hayes nominee for the “Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical.” ”I want to focus on ‘American Prophet,’ I want it to move on, I want it to go to New York and I want it to go on a national tour and we’re working on it. But it also encourages me to keep writing.”
“American Prophet,” has come a long way in seven years. What began as a commission by the Episcopal Cathedral of Nashville to artistically showcase Hummon’s “thoughts on ‘the prophetic’ in a theatrical form,” and then an oratorio, turned into a musical highlighting the genius of the great American abolitionist, and why his words and lessons are still necessary today.
“I wanted to use Douglass’ own language because he wrote three autobiographies,” Hummon told the Informer. “He basically spent his life telling his own story, so it seems only proper that we allow him to do it.”
In the Arena Stage production that starred Cornelius Smith Jr. as Douglass, “American Prophet,” beautifully showcased the many layers of a man who was “woke,” before “wokeness,” was a thing, and who continues to offer lessons the world can use today.
“I think as you let him speak, it’s almost strange– the degree to which he was speaking it was almost like he woke up and read The Washington Post and then just decided to comment on the state of our democracy,” said Hummon.
“When he says things like, ‘Power concedes nothing without demand, it never did, it never will,’ it’s unbelievable, in a way, how contemporary he is, so that’s something I felt from the very beginning and I felt it even more when I heard Cornelius say those words because he’s such a fantastic actor.”
The Evolution of ‘American Prophet’
With his theatrical productions regularly rooted in history, Hummon grew more excited by Douglass’ life. In digging deeper into the justice seeker, orator, newspaper publisher and family man, he realized there were so many moving pieces.
“That’s when I thought this is a big show, and I need help– another writer, if possible, who’s also a director. And I was introduced to Charles Randolph-Wright, who is brilliant,” Hummon said. “That’s when things really took off.”
Randolph-Wright had one major suggestion to help the show pop. Hummon’s oratorio was originally titled “The Making of an American Prophet.”
“One of the first things Charles said to me was, ‘That’s a terrible title,” Hummon said laughing. “He goes, ‘I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we just shorten it?’”
Then the focus became turning a specific portion of Douglass’ life (up to about 1865 with Lincoln’s death and the end of the Civil War) to a musical.
“We wanted to make this about a guy who is growing and changing,” he said.” There’s so much to write. Things are funny sometimes. There’s also sad, and triumphant, people falling in love, and that’s the stuff of a musical.”
The theatre-maker with a background in country music explained why telling Douglass’ life through music remained key.
“Music does other things. It brings things to the surface that you can’t ordinarily bring. You can’t do it in a documentary, you can’t do it with just words.”
For Hummon, bringing “American Prophet,” was not only intentional due to Douglass’ life, but his own.
Douglass had a major connection to the D.C. region, which is why D.C. Statehood advocates offer “Douglass Commonwealth” as the new state name.
“He and Anna (his wife) both passed at the Cedar House, and that was their final home in his capacity as marshall of Washington. And the whole moniker, ‘Lion of Anacostia,’ and there we were right on the Anacostia River basically– it was extremely poignant,” Hummon explained.
Then there’s Hummon. Although he’s called Nashville home for 38 years, Hummon still has love for the DMV area, where he moved in his adolescence after first living overseas with his family. The artist said his parents, who died six years ago, were musicians and “theatre buffs,” who exposed him to arts around the District.
“I went to the theatre with them at Arena when I was a little boy, at Signature, at the Kennedy Center, and they were regulars.”
“For me, it’s a coming home.”