Roger Guenveur Smith’s new play Frederick Douglass Now modernizes the slave-turned-activist’s letters and journals and adapts them for the stage. Using mixed media and passionate, rhythmic speech patterns, Smith targets many still-relevant social issues surrounding race and democracy. Smith’s ambitious, if not heavy handed, use of other additional traits linked to African America culture and heritage rejuvenate Douglass’ already resounding tone at best. At worst, it inhibits the entire piece to a fallback of predictable, ill-fitting pop culture highlights with little connection to Douglass’ original text.
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
Roger Guenveur Smith has certainly done his homework for his new play, Frederick Douglass Now. In studying Frederick Douglass’ writings he has also deconstructed them and reformatted them for a contemporary audience with contemporary themes. Each scene acts like a chapter, such as a letter to former master Thomas Auld, essays depicting his thoughts on the Seneca Falls Convention and enlisting black men to fight in the Civil War, and even an interrupting phone call from Harriet Tubman that allows his respect for her to play out in a one-sided conversation.
The opening scene places Smith on the narrow side of stage right, almost offstage, with a single spotlight slanted downward, washing his face in brightness while the rest of his body, as well as the rest of the stage, remains cast in shadows. He begins his first and best monologue slow and methodical, picking up the pace, volume, and energy as it progresses with stream-of-consciousness-style velocity. Starting out on familiar territory with the line “I am a fugitive slave”, Smith then spans centuries and state borders in an impassioned commentary fueled with bone-chilling clarity.
Smith swiftly embodies everything surrounding African American culture, from hanging out with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Hotel and telling him to duck to teaching Jimi Hendrix how to play Foxy Lady to never liking Kool Aid to inventing chitlins and crack cocaine to tracing his royal legacy to the promise on a liquor bottle and ending with a tender implore to please tell him all this is just a Spike Lee movie. Smith’s brutal nonstop confessions grab the audience from the get-go through such an innovative interpretive approach and thrilling powerhouse performance.
By setting up such a tough act to follow, however, Smith proves to be his own worst enemy. The ensuing monologues pale in comparison despite the solid, sympathetic subject matter and Smith’s consistency as a powerful actor with obvious true conviction. The original content he contributes in the beginning fades towards the middle of the program, taking Douglass’ text word-for-word without any of the inspired rejuvenation found in the preceding scenes.
Towards the end Smith then takes too much creative license, relying heavily on chronic Malcolm X and Michael Jackson references, and transitioning into the final scene by playing a live Marvin Gaye recording of the Star-Spangled Banner. The play ends with Smith convulsing onstage, repeating angst-riddled liberal rhetoric on race wars, soldiers in Iraq, slavery, and the Rastafarian passive mindset, creating a bizarre blend of rap, reggae, and freedom song. While Roger Guenveur Smith makes a bold attempt to bring Frederick Douglass to life onstage, his own creative devices get in the way, trying to pack too much into a short piece, resulting in mixed messages lacking closure, unable to reach one clear conclusion surrounding a struggling African American population who still continue to face discrimination.
Frederick Douglass Now (one hour; no intermission)
The Donaghy Theater @ Irish Arts Center (553 West 51st Street)
Tickets (www.smarttix.com or 212-868-4444): $50
Performances: through 10/25; varies in alternation with The Cambria
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.