As Frederick Douglass in “American Prophet,” Cornelius Smith Jr. sings about the need for a national judgment strong enough to free the nation’s slaves.
“It is not light that we need, but fire. … We need the storm / We need the whirlwind / And for the sake of the nation, we need an earthquake,” Smith sings in the musical, which wraps up its world premiere Sunday at Arena Internship in Washington DC
The full seriousness and urgency of Smith’s performance shines through in a YouTube video of him singing “We Need A Fire” that was posted two years ago.
So does Smith’s affection for his hometown. “What’s up, deer? he says in the intro, dropping the greeting that sounds like Detroiters home.
For this Cass Technical High School alumnus, 2022 has been an impressive year.
This month, Smith is making an impression with his role as a young black doctor struggling with unthinkable conditions in “Five Days In Memorial,” an Apple TV+ limited series about a New Orleans hospital left in jeopardy after the Hurricane Katrina.
He has also been impressing theater audiences since mid-July as Douglass, who escaped slavery to become an iconic leader of the abolitionist movement. Already, there’s speculation that his next stop in “American Prophet” will be on Broadway.
“It’s been going really well,” Smith said over the phone. “It was well received, and there is talk of it going to New York next.”
Until now, Smith was best known for the four seasons he spent on ABC’s “Scandal.” His character, Marcus Walker, an associate of DC crisis manager Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), eventually became White House press secretary for President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) and lover of first lady-turned-President Mellie. Grant (Bellamy Young).
Although Smith was born in Southern California (where his father served in the military at Camp Pendleton), he grew up mostly in the western part of Detroit. Still interested in performing, he began taking acting seriously at Cass Technical High School, where he found a mentor in Marilyn McCormick, the now-retired theater educator who won Tony Award recognition in 2016 with an award for excellence in theater education.
He remembers traveling with fellow Cass Tech students to perform at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. “I was really swept away by the power and reach that theater has and has had. It was just like, ‘Wow, I’m here…doing theatre, affecting lives,'” he says.
Smith received his undergraduate degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. At SMU, he recalls, there was a moment that solidified his commitment to continuing his education and not starting his career immediately.
“Someone said to me, ‘Oh, Cornelius, it’s going to be fine. You have a great look. You will work. Everything will be alright.’ That statement right there… made me want to pursue my education to really find longevity and sharpen all the tools in my tool belt.
After graduating with a master’s degree from New York University’s graduate theater program, Smith landed stage roles in The Public Theater’s “Romeo and Juliet” with Shakespeare in the Park (his first play after graduate school). ) and worked in television like his five-year stint on “All My Children” and guest parts on “Agents of SHIELD” and “Major Crimes.”
After being cast in “Five Days At Memorial,” Smith says he read the acclaimed book of the same title by Sheri Fink and did his own research on the devastation at the hospital in the aftermath of Katrina.
“The more I did, the more, one, I was shocked that I had never heard of this and then, two, it was just a growing sense of pride and gratitude to be able to…play this role.”
Smith describes his character, Dr. Bryant King, as one of the few black doctors on staff and also “a newbie” on the site.
“He’s only been in the hospital for a few months and he already has a lot on his plate because he’s a black man in a new space – a predominantly white hospital that’s in a predominantly black community. …He’s got his plate full of trying to really navigate a new place, this devastation, this heightened sense of hopelessness and abandonment.
The co-creators of “Five Days At Memorial” – John Ridley, Oscar winner for the adapted screenplay of “12 Years A Slave”, and Carlton Cuse, famous for the ABC cult classic “Lost” – are ” two incredible souls and talents,” according to Smith.
He notes that Ridley set the tone for the cast and crew from day one. “He let it be known that everyone on set was going to be respected and treated professionally. We had no bad energy or disrespect on set. … It’s that foundation of love, of respect and professionalism that he put in place that really continued and carried over.
Smith’s journey to starring in “American Prophet” began with a Detroit-themed Broadway musical.
He was auditioning for the role of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy in “Motown: The Musical” when he met its manager, Charles Randolph-Wright. The show aired on Broadway in 2013 and earned four Tony nominations.
Although another actor ended up playing Gordy, Randolph-Wright contacted Smith a few years later about a project that turned out to be “American Prophet.”
“He said, ‘Hey, I’m working on something really special about Frederick Douglass. I think you are my Frederick,” Smith recalled.
The musical is set from the early 1850s to the end of the Civil War and watches Douglass as a young man in the midst of his struggle to end slavery. It also highlights the contributions of Anna Murray Douglas (played by Kristolyn Lloyd), Douglass’ wife of 44 years and an activist in her own right.
She was “really the backbone and support mechanism” of her husband’s work, according to Smith.
The original screenplay, written by Randolph-Wright (who is also directing the current production) and Grammy-winning country music singer-songwriter Marcus Hummon, and the music and lyrics, which were composed and written by Hummon , are inspired by words from real life. and the writings of Douglass.
Smith estimates that about 80% of what he says and sings on stage comes from Douglass’s own speeches, letters, and autobiographies. He points out that when it comes to racism and injustice, Douglass seems as relevant today as he was more than 150 years ago.
“It’s amazing when you hear his words, how relevant they are today. You forget that he was a man speaking in the 1800s. It is as if he was speaking this morning when you look at what is still going on in the world today.
Originally commissioned in 2015 by Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville, “American Prophet” was set to have its world premiere in 2020 at Arena Stage. Then came the pandemic, which delayed the opening of the DC until July of this year.
In its review, The Washington Post said Smith was “a manly, passionate Douglass” and praised the score’s mix of jazz, blues and bluegrass influences for emphasizing “a central point…that despite the ambivalence Professed statement of Douglass about this country, he was not just a hero, he was a American hero.”
As for Smith’s soaring voice, he says he grew up singing in church. At Cass Tech, he says, his classmates may remember that he was among the theater students who sang “sweet-o-grams” at school for Valentine’s Day.
“We were interrupting classes, so I was knocking on the door and going, ‘Excuse me, I have a sweet-o-gram for, say Dawn or Melanie. … I was reading a personal note (from) that sent the sweet-o-gram and then I was singing a song in front of the class,” he says. “We would spend a whole day going from class to class doing this. It was great!”
As for what’s next, Smith says he’ll be guided by his continued pursuit of meaningful work. It’s an approach to acting that has been a constant for him.
“I’m very, very selective and aware of what I lend my energy to and what I focus on,” Smith says. “I don’t lean towards one type of character or another. It’s really the story that drives me.
And in compelling tales like “Five Days at Memorial” and “American Prophet,” Smith brings the fire that such material deserves.
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at [email protected]
“Five Days at the Memorial”
Stream now on AppleTV+ with new episodes arriving every Friday until September 16