Theater Preview: “Frederick Douglass NOW” — History in the Present Tense

The performer’s question is direct: has the talented orator anything to say about race in today’s America? The answer is a galvanizing yes.

Frederick Douglass NOW at the the Hopkins Center for the Arts, Dartmouth College, NH, September 27 and 28.

Roger Guenveur Smith performing “Frederick Douglass NOW.” Photo: Marc Campos.

By Susan B. Apel

Frederick Douglass NOW saw its first performance at New York’s La Mama Experimental Theater in 1990, premiering the day that Nelson Mandela was released from decades of confinement in a South African prison. The multi-media show has remained a work in progress since then, tended to by its Obie-winning creator and performer, Roger Guenveur Smith, who has performed it throughout the United States over the past almost-thirty years.This past summer, Smith brought the piece to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. This year marks 200 years since Douglass’s birth, and 180 years since he escaped bondage to become a social reformer and abolitionist leader.

Frederick Douglass NOW is aptly named, the emphasis on its all-caps NOW. The one-man show is designed to be far from a dusty nod to the past. Yes, the script relies heavily on Douglass’s own words, but Smith is not particularly interested in serving up an inspirational biographical exploration of the celebrated slave turned abolitionist and women’s rights supporter. Smith reaches back and pulls Douglass’s fiery demands for equality into the present. The performer’s question is direct: has the talented orator anything to say about race in today’s America? The answer is a galvanizing yes.

The prologue of this hour-long performance is a poem, a rap with a structure like jazz in its seemingly improvised (though  carefully scripted) form. In it, Smith cuts and pastes moments from Douglass’s era into our own, the monologue’s time machine zigs zags taking sharp and surprising turns. Smith as Douglass declares: “I’m on the run in a white Bronco disguised as an ex-football player . . . I’m a movie star, gun at the ready, my image plastered on plantation walls next to the malt liquor ads. . . . I’m a fugitive slave, running in Hitler’s Olympics.” It’s a pastiche that infuses Douglass into myriad historical figures, from Jesse Owens to the murdered James Byrd.

According to Smith, music was important to Douglass, who himself played the violin. Smith has included songs in this work, most recently a recording of the “Star-Spangled Banner” sung by Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. (It was Gaye’s last public performance before he was murdered by his father.) According to Smith, the inclusion of this particular tune, performed by an African-American singer at a sports event, is a way to look at how music has reflected and influenced the history of the black community, as well as raising deeper questions about the controversial role of African-Americans as entertainers in a majority-white culture.

The latter part of NOW mines Douglass’s letters and speeches, including his famed “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro.” Smith presents Douglass in contemporary clothes, doing away with the man’s iconic mane of hair. The staging is meant to be direct, through there is some amusing updating (there’s an inventive use of a cell phone). The aim is to make Douglass’s words ring with power today.

Social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman Frederick Douglass.

Critics of the production have lauded the work as “mesmerizing” and “a beast of a performance,” with special kudos for Smith’s script and forceful prologue. There have also been detractors. One critic worried that Frederick Douglass NOW may be depend more on  the star power of Smith than the eloquence of its historical subject. Another reservation has pointed to Smith’s editing of Douglass’s works — particularly the truncating of the famed Fourth of July speech.

As an actor, Smith has starred in several Spike Lee films as far back as Do The Right Thing (he played the character of Smiley), and more recently portrayed the title character in two dramas based on the experience of Rodney King, both onstage and in a film for Netflix. For Smith, Frederick Douglass NOW has been a labor of love for decades, from its infancy as his college term paper through two decades of creating, writing, and performing. In a post-performance interview at Wellesley College, Smith compared himself to actor Hal Holbrook and his lifelong portrayal of Mark Twain, acknowledging that he hopes to continue performing Frederick Douglass NOW into his dotage.

Susan B. Apel is a writer and law professor whose creative nonfiction and poetry has appeared in Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Best of Vine Leaves 2015, Rhizomes, The Vignette Review, Woven Tale Press, Bloodroot, and the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review. Her blog, ArtfulEdge, in which she writes about arts in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, appears regularly on the She is also a contributor to the newspaper, Vermont Woman. She lives in Lebanon, NH.

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