Thanks to a new musical, Frederick Douglass is dancing in pop culture

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It begins, fittingly, with a song about freedom. And Frederick Douglass singing it.

Yes, this Frederick Douglass, the polymath abolitionist, writer and political thinker, who escaped slavery and became one of the most influential – and photographed – Americans of the 19th century. Portrayed as actor Cornelius Smith Jr., he sings in the tone of activism in the new musical “American Prophet” which makes its world premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, the city to which Douglass moved in the last years of his life, and where he died, aged 77 in 1895.

Not only sing, but also dance. This dignified figure gazing at countless black-and-white images now moves to the beat of a score by Nashville-based country music composer Marcus Hummon. “Of course he danced!” said musical director and co-writer Charles Randolph-Wright. “I mean, he met his wife at a ball. He was fascinated by everything; he learned the violin late in life. He had this unstoppable mind, this inquisitive mind.

The long-gestating show, postponed by the pandemic shutdown, is one of Arena’s efforts to weave vital American history into popular culture — a genre that of course owes its impetus to the juggernaut achievements of ” Hamilton”. (It marks its grand opening at Arena’s Kreeger Theater on July 28.) Other shows popping up recently, like the Broadway revival of “1776” entirely with female, non-binary and trans actors, attempt to repot the roots of our national history. “American Prophet” paves the way for an understanding of how we have sometimes sought to be a more equitable country.

In a time of tumult of anger, theater can still show us the way forward

Arena’s business has a creditable pedigree. Hummon and Randolph-Wright, the latter director of the recent Tony-nominated revival of Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind,” chose to adapt Douglass’ voluminous words for about four-fifths of their screenplay. If that wasn’t enough, they turned to Kenneth B. Morris Jr., a maternal great-great-great-grandson of Douglass, for advice. This led Morris to become a “Douglas family consultant” for the project.

“We wanted to humanize him, because he’s held on that pedestal as an iconic figure in history,” Morris said in a Zoom interview. The breadth and intensity of Douglass’ fame and advocacy were prodigious, particularly on the issue of ending slavery, but also on education, suffrage, and women’s equality. “I know, being in the family and also working with academics who have researched my family,” Morris added, “that stories about her that humanize her are just fantastic.”

It is hard to imagine how the story of Douglass’ life and remarkable accomplishments – the escape from slavery and the campaign for emancipation, his career as a statesman and publisher, his eloquence outstanding – could be compressed into a few hours of exposure and song. Which also seems to have happened to the creative team. They decided to focus on the events in his biography leading up to the Civil War — a time that Randolph-Wright calls Douglass’ “badass time, his time of activism, his time of insurrection, when he was in his 40s, when he became the American prophet.”

For Hummon, a Grammy-winning songwriter who has composed for Tim McGraw, Wynonna Judd and the Dixie Chicks, it was the realization that Douglass’ own writing could propel the show’s melodies that cemented his creative path. “It was ultimately the poetry of his language that did it, that I started hearing music,” Hummon explained. “If you say, ‘It is not light that is needed, but fire; it’s not the soft shower, but the thunder”, I mean, it’s verses. There are times when his speech and writing simply shift gears and turn into poetry.

Hummon had embarked on a modest song cycle about Douglass, after reading one of his three autobiographies which was performed at a Nashville church in the mid-2010s. “It was good and I enjoyed it, but I kept reading and when I got to ‘Life and Times [of Frederick Douglass]”, and then I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a huge story here,'” Hummon said. “I don’t know. I didn’t get it right. And maybe I still don’t, I still try to do it, but I knew I needed help. I had needed a writer-director to work with. And I had friends who were like, “Yeah, we know who this guy is.”

That guy was Randolph-Wright, an accomplished Arena director (“Ruined” by Lynn Nottage) whose Broadway musical theater projects included “Motown,” a show built around the accomplishments of impresario Berry Gordy. . As he also developed material for a play about actor Sidney Poitier, Randolph-Wright wasn’t sure another slice of hulking drama was in order.

“My immediate response was, ‘uhhh,'” he said, mimicking exhaustion. But he traveled to Nashville to visit his family, sat down to meet Hummon and listened to his music. “And the first song,” the director added, “went through my body.”

Charles Randolph-Wright: “I dream big. That’s what I do.”

A web of interconnected friendships also resulted in the involvement of Morris, who along with her mother, Nettie Washington Douglass, founded an organization in 2007, Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, which raises awareness about racism and human trafficking. He attended a reading of the musical in 2019 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where he met Randolph-Wright. “We became fast friends — we’re brothers now — and then I officially became a legacy consultant on the project,” Morris said. A piece of advice that he conveyed has become central to the company.

“I had told Marcus and Charles early on that my great-great-great-grandmother Anna should be represented and treated with the dignity and respect she deserves. the story.

Portrayed by Kristolyn Lloyd – an original Broadway cast member of “Dear Evan Hansen” – Frederick’s first wife, Anna Douglass, is elevated to the co-starring role. “She was a radical freedom fighter in her own right,” said Morris, whose illustrious ancestry does not end with the Douglass; he is also the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington. “Anna and Frederick have been married for 44 years. They had five children together. They had 21 grandchildren together. And she played a very important role in all of this. (Douglass remarried after Anna’s death in 1882.)

A musical that could magnify Douglass’ perch in the popular imagination is for Morris both an emotional mission and a fitting amplification of his legacy. Douglass, he said, well understood the value of branding a cause with a relatable and humanizing identity – one of the reasons he was such a vigorous early proponent of photography. In fact, a filmmaker suggested to Morris not too long ago that Douglass was “the inventor of the selfie.”

“He was talking about a selfie not being this frivolous thing that people do, but showing up and positioning yourself in a way that you want people to see,” Morris said. “So you form your own identity. And while he didn’t take the first photo of himself, he created this idea of ​​placing himself out there in the public consciousness of how you want to be seen.

Now it’s Randolph-Wright and Hummon who will have a say in how Douglass is seen — and heard. And yes, even how he dances.

American Prophet, music and lyrics by Marcus Hummon, book by Hummon and Charles Randolph-Wright. Directed by Randolph-Wright. Through August 28 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.