'Frederick Douglass Now': Theater Review

Justin Zsebe
A resonant one-man show about race

Smith mashes up Douglass’ writings with contemporary tropes and memes on race relations in a nuanced and provocative one-man show

Mainstream audiences first got a look at Roger Guenveur Smith in Do The Right Thing, in which he played the stuttering half-wit, Smiley, who wanders the block selling photos of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. While Smiley isn’t the sharpest resident of Bed-Stuy, his canny solution to the systematic denial of rights to minorities is a combination of Malcolm’s militant call to arms when power concedes nothing and King’s efforts to expose the barbarism of bigotry via dignity, eloquence and courage — words that describe Smith as well as the subject of his play, Frederick Douglass Now, in revival at Bootleg Theater.

An imposing flag drapes stage right, the bottom brushing the floor, and another hangs backward, stage left, while a third, smaller one is suspended vertically. The rope used to raise it hangs almost lynch-like center stage, an ambivalent touch to Kirk Wilson’s emblematic set design.

When the lights come up, Smith, dressed in a dark, three-piece suit, stands upstage where he launches into a jam that thematically connects modern African-Americans with their past. “I am a fugitive slave. I live underneath the Hollywood Freeway or the Brooklyn Bridge, somewhere under the rainbow,” he sings. “My coalition kept warm by blazing barrels of trash, scraps from the cane fields, fast food restaurants. I am on the run, up and down the basketball court or in the bush. You can’t touch me.” He riffs like Miles Davis in his free-bop years, when his head was swimming with heroin, when the music seemed like it made no sense except it was all tied together by an underlying notion.

While this opening movement is purely the writing of Smith, who raps with break-neck modern rhythm, the body of his play is composed mainly of essays and letters written by abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In the second movement, the light changes from copper to white as Smith moves downstage, addressing the audience in a less boisterous tone, always conscious of modulation, the rising and falling of rhetoric and rhythm in this meaty one-hour monologue.

Smith is known for riffing on historical figures, putting African-American issues front and center in his work, as in his Obie-winning A Huey P. Newton Story, as well as the more recent, acclaimed Rodney King. Ostensibly the work is about race, but as the middle class diminishes and people of all colors find themselves further and further from the American dream, Smith and Douglass’ words take on meaning beyond the context of black and white.

Smith began work on Frederick Douglass Now as an undergrad at Occidental College and has been performing it for over twenty years. As he remarked in the lobby after the show, he continues to hone and refine the piece as time passes, with no shortage of material to be culled from Douglass’ career as a newspaperman in addition to bone-headed comments made every day by celebrities and politicians. Future revisions might refer to Joe Biden’s remarks about then-Senator Barack Obama being the “first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean," or more recent musings as to why American aid workers were afforded an experimental Ebola treatment while thousands of Africans were left to die.

“The chief injury lies in the absence of moral feeling in the utterances of our rulers,” Douglass said about Lincoln when the sixteenth President wrote Horace Greeley that he was indifferent to abolition. But Douglass’ words ring true today when minorities are targeted under stop-and-frisk laws or a homeless grandmother is beaten by a cop on the 10 Freeway, or when peaceful protesters are pepper-sprayed at UC Davis and no one is made to answer for it. 

Frederick Douglass Now is neither an indictment nor a screed but an appeal to our better selves. Despite centuries of injustice, Smith embraces what is right and decent about the founding principles of our country and fervently hopes we live up to them. Douglass’ arguments, as irrefutable as they are, made him an outlier in his time. The fact that some of his ideas remain controversial even today is a sad reminder of how far we still are from a “post-racial” America.