The Spirit of Frederick Douglass
[The following review is scheduled to appear on Variety.com the week of November 5th. and in Variety magazine the week of November 12th]
If ever America needed a statesman to rekindle the flame of liberty at home and abroad, now is the time. So, the appearance of Frederick Douglass on stage to remind us of the intent of all those fine words in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment couldn't be more welcome. To have Larry Bograd's epistolary encapsulation of Douglass' life accompanied by a host of magnificent spirituals and archival images from the Library of Congress transforms the great man's story into the live equivalent of a Ken Burns documentary in which the audience becomes "We, the people ..."
Tracing Douglass' journey from a slave to a fugitive to a freeman, playwright Bograd mines the writings and speeches of the subject—whose eloquence eclipses his equally illustrious contemporary, Abraham Lincoln—from his early twenties to his death at 77 in Washington, D.C., on February 20, 1895.
As the middle-aged Douglass, Jeffrey Nickelson—the artistic director of Shadow Theatre Company, Denver's professional black acting troupe—captures the fiery passion and philosophical brilliance of our country's foremost advocate for equal rights for all persons, regardless of color, sex, education, and financial status.
Looking every inch the young "Lion of Anacostia" (the mature Douglass' D.C. neighborhood), Nickelson finds the intrinsic cadence of the noted orator's rhythmic line, manifesting the full power of Douglass' classic rhetorical persuasion.
Early on, Douglass explains the perfect logic for spirituals accompanying his words: "Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. … I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness."
In collaboration with Shadow, The Spirituals Project selected nine arrangements from their repertoire, including "God Save the Queen"/"My Country 'Tis of Thee," "John Brown's Body"/"The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Go Down, Moses," and "Amazing Grace," as well as one new number, "We Look Like Men of War," to fulfill the musical directions in Bograd's script. Whether accompanying the more than 130 slides, providing subtext to Douglass' words, or filling a completely dark hall, the 75 voice, multi-ethnic choir delivers a nuanced and inspirational performance.
Mixed in with the younger Douglass' urgent observations are the wizened subtleties of the "Sage of Anacostia." Across stage from Nickelson's characterization, Hugo Jon Sayles imbues the grey-mantled version with the gravity of a tested and still-robust freedom fighter passing the torch to the children of his success.
While the timeline of the narrative slides—which are interspersed among stunning historic images—occasionally hiccoughs, and the detail in the projected text is occasionally wanting, we are in no way distracted from our hero's message. Like a biblical prophet, in his parting words Douglass reminds us that our political and spiritual responsibilities are intertwined.
"Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizens are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest and your problem will be solved, and—whatever may be in store for you in the future, whether prosperity or adversity, whether you have foes without or foes within, whether there shall be peace or war—based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice, and humanity, with no class having cause for complaint or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever."
Shadow Theatre Company's world premiere of Larry Bograd's The Spirit of Frederick Douglass runs at the Newman Center November 3rd through 5th and at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center Thursdays through Saturdays, November 30th through December 9th. For tickets call 303-837-9355.