Friday, September 25, 2009

Frederick Douglass Now

Anyone expecting a straightforward biographical narrative of a historical figure might be disappointed with this show. However, anyone in search of a provocative evening with a stellar performer should head to the Irish Arts Center to see Roger Guenveur Smith’s Frederick Douglass Now.

I was amazed at Smith’s seemingly effortless ability to switch tones and genres in a heartbeat, going from hip-hop, to impassioned oratory to humor, never losing focus during the 50-minute intermissionless performance. He is not only the actor, but is the playwright as well and it is clear he owns this work. As my friend Casey and I were leaving the opening night party Wednesday I told him I hope Smith receives a Drama Desk nomination for best solo performance. The next day I sent an e-mail message to a friend on the nominating committee to make sure he knew about this show and its worthiness.

On a bare stage with an American flag backdrop, Smith uses Douglass’ writings from the 19th century and meshes them with current references to illustrate how much and how little have changed in terms of race relations.

“I am a fugitive slave
“I live underneath the Hollywood freeway or the
“Brooklyn Bridge somewhere under the rainbow my
“coalition kept warm by blazing barrels of trash
“scraps from the cane fields and the fast food
“establishments. . . ,” he begins in rap cadence and continues for several minutes. He returns to this form again and again, but he also delivers the abolitionist’s speeches, breaking occasionally for humor -- I loved his stopping to take a cell phone call from Harriet Tubman.

The modern references don’t hide the core truth of Douglass as a fugitive slave turned statesman, whose quest for an America free of racism, sexism and economic deprivation is still all too relevant.

Smith's nationally acclaimed performance, most recently presented at the Kennedy Center, was originally commissioned by La Mama.  His interest in Douglass dates back to his studies at Occidental College and Yale University where he served as research assistant at the Frederick Douglass Papers.

In an Irish Echo op-ed column, reprinted in the program, Irish Arts Center executive director Aidan Connolly reflects on the importance of artists in shaping public opinion. “The 2008 election made history, but it did not change it,” he writes. “Still, it signified a seismic shift in our culture, and while the ground continues to move beneath us, we have an opportunity to reexamine our old assumptions, forge new connections, and create a new narrative, a new path. Artists can lead this effort, and some already are, in a way that also sheds light on the path to Irish America’s future.

“Percy Shelley called poets ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ and ‘the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.’ Like an activist who runs for office not to win, but to advance a cause not yet popular, artists can pave the way for a future we know is right and good, but from which history and habit sometimes holds us back.”

Frederick Douglass Now is running in rotation with The Cambria, which I saw and loved in the spring during its sold-out, one-week only engagement. They are presented by the Irish Arts Center in association with the Classical Theatre of Harlem and run through Sunday, Oct. 25.

The Irish Arts Center is at 553 W. 51st St., between 10th and 11th Avenues. Tickets can be purchased by calling SmartTix at 212-868-4444 or at For more information, visit 

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