If a performance at Washington’s Arena Stage is well received, the curtain call follows a predictable pattern. As soon as the play ends, all light in the theater is extinguished. The cast gropes its way through the black hole to find their places on the stage. Light then floods the hall, and applause politely starts as one audience member, then another, rises. Eventually, a standing ovation is achieved.
Something different happened on the evening of July 29th at the Arena’s performance of its new musical, American Prophet: Frederick Douglass In His Own Words. It was something I’d never seen in decades of attending plays at Arena Stage.
Even though the theater was pitch black following the conclusion of American Prophet, the entire audience jumped to its feet cheering wildly into the void, a surreal experience. Once the lights came back on, a roar of approval swept over the cast for its brilliant treatment of the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass. At the end of the curtain call, the lead actor who played Douglass, Cornelius Smith Jr., was so moved he was reluctant to leave the stage even though his fellow cast members had already filed off. He stood there alone, remaining in character as if ready to continue rousing the audience with the musical’s signature anthem, “We Need a Fire.”
If American Prophet opens on Broadway, and it’s hard to believe it won’t, its ticket prices may command more than $500 each just like Hamilton. Better to see American Prophet now before its run at the Arena ends on August 28.
American Prophet began with Marcus Hummon, a Grammy award winning artist and Nashville Songwriter Association Hall of Fame inductee. He saw the poetry in the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and wanted to create a biography set to music using those words to portray the abolitionist’s life from birth along Tuckahoe Creek in Talbot County through the Civil War. Hummon had the good fortune of being able to collaborate with award-winning director Charles Randolph-Wright whose credits include Broadway shows such as Motown the Musical and Trouble In Mind as well as several TV productions.
Using hauntingly beautiful melodies and powerful acting, Randolph-Wright and Hummon bring us face-to-face with important characters from Douglass’s early years along the Tuckahoe and in St. Michaels and Fells Point—his grandmother Betsey, Hugh Auld, Demby, Reverend Gore, Edward Covey. Once Douglass frees himself from his bondage, the play focuses on his interactions with Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, and William Lloyd Garrison as all four shape the history of nineteenth century America. I was stunned by American Prophet’s ability to do a compelling portrayal of the complex character of these four struggling visionaries within the confines of a two-hour play.
But the heart and soul of American Prophet is the seldom told and little-known story of the bond between Frederick and his wife, Anna Murray Douglass, born across the Tuckahoe in Caroline County. Anna is portrayed by Grammy and Emmy Award-winning actress Kristolyn Lloyd. In a duet that brings tears to your eyes, Anna and Frederick declare their love for one another, singing “Children of the Same River,” a prescient acknowledgement of the struggle for freedom and racial justice that will consume their lives.
Much is known of Frederick. His life played out on the front pages of newspapers and in fiery speeches before thousands in the United States and Great Britain. It was detailed in his autobiographies read by millions that are the most powerful slave narrative in American literature. Anna, in contrast, is shrouded in obscurity. She raised their five children, ran an underground railroad station, and served as Douglass’s business agent and life coach during her 44 years of marriage to a public figure who spent most of his time on the road. She did so without either attracting or soliciting attention; she eschewed it. American Prophet and Ms. Lloyd’s portrayal are important elements in the movement to give Anna her due.
The play has already received excellent reviews from The Washington Post and The Guardian. Advisers to the production include people familiar to Talbot Countians—Kenneth Morris Jr. and Celeste-Marie Bernier. Information about American Prophet can be found on the production’s website and through Arena Stage. Don’t let this opportunity slip away!