Friday, March 20, 2009

The Cambria

With just two fine actors, one good script and a minimal amount of staging, this production puts to shame most of what I’ve seen on Broadway and off during this entire 2008-2009 season. I was informed as well as moved and entertained by The Cambria, and came away with a renewed sense of appreciation for my Irish heritage.

Donal O’Kelly’s play opened a window for me on a piece of history I knew nothing about. Before abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass became an iconic American figure, he found a home and respect in Ireland. A runaway slave and wanted man, he used false papers to book a ticket in 1845 on The Cambria, a Cunard Line paddle-steamer, and sailed from Boston to Ireland. The play tells the story of that voyage and his triumphal reception on the Irish shore.

The Cambria is directed by Raymond Keane and stars O’Kelly and Sorcha Fox (both in photo) taking on all the roles. Through voice and body language, they transform themselves into several distinct characters. O’Kelly shifts from being Douglass to a hateful southerner who learns Douglass’ identity and is intent on exposing him; Fox is wholly convincing as a little girl, an adult singer, a black male crew member and the captain.

Tension builds during the historic voyage as Douglass’ fate is in question. With a bounty on his head in America for being on the run, and being the target of great racist hatred for having written his life story, A Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Douglass struggles to uphold his dignity and win over the captain who will decide whether he is returned to his owner in shackles or is free to pursue a new life in Ireland. The Cambria tells the story of how Douglass survived to become what Abraham Lincoln called "the most impressive man I ever met.”

This is an interesting and exciting chapter in the life of a man who, at the 1888 Republican convention in Chicago, became the first African-American to have his name placed in nomination for the presidency by a major party.  Before that honor, though, he had been greeted as a hero by the Irish people and spoke to mass meetings on platforms with Daniel O’Connell, the leading Irish politician of the day. About that time Douglass wrote: “I have spent some of the happiest days of my life since landing in this country. . . I look around in vain for one who would question my equal humanity, claim me as a slave, or offer me an insult. I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the same kindness and deference paid to white people . . . the truth is, people here in Ireland measure and esteem men according to their moral and intellectual worth, and not according to the colour of their skin.”

Sadly, a program note from the playwright says this would not be the case today. “If Frederick Douglass were to land in Ireland now, he would be less than impressed with his reception in a ‘dispersal centre’ on direct provision -- $20 a week. And his use of a false identity in transit would badly affect his chances of being granted asylum. He’d probably be sent back to where he came from. . . Maybe the time has come for us Irish to ‘choose our better history,’ and to let our choice be guided by Frederick Dousglass’s glowing report of Ireland in 1845.”

The Cambria is produced by the Irish Arts Center in association with Classical Theatre of Harlem and performs at Donaghy Theatre at the IAC, 553 W. 51st St., through Sunday, March 22. Tickets are $40 ($35 for Irish Arts Center members) and are available by calling SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or

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