BWW Feature: Solas Nua's THE FREDERICK DOUGLASS PROJECT at The Yards Marina
Solas Nua, the DC-based organization bringing Irish contemporary arts state-side, has gone back two hundred years to find inspiration for its upcoming production, The Frederick Douglass Project. Commissioned to commemorate Douglass' bicentennial, the production explores the abolitionist and leader's 1845 visit to Ireland.
Non-historians and historians alike may be surprised to learn about this piece of the Douglass story, but it is unquestionably one of the most significant chapters in his life. On the heels of the publication of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass traveled to Europe, spending six months touring Ireland in what would turn out to be the early days of the "Great Hunger" (1845-1849).
It was in Ireland that Douglass would come into his own, hone his skills as orator and leader, free from the constant fear of retribution, which he lived under in the United States. Douglass would write to William Lloyd Garrison that in Ireland, he was "not treated as a color, but as a man". Inspired by the words of those advocating for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, particularly Arthur O'Connor and Daniel O'Connell, Douglass grew to appreciate the power of language and vocabulary in the struggle for human rights.
The Frederick Douglass Project explores this unique period in Douglass' life through the work of two esteemed playwrights, Psalmayene 24 ("An Eloquent Fugitive Slave Flees to Ireland") and Deirdre Kinahan ("Wild Notes"), and through the blending of both African American and Irish cultures. For Psalmayene 24, this project is about more than the retelling of history. It is about busting open the box, both figuratively and literally. Leaving behind the well-known image of Douglass as a white-haired statesman, the piece brings to life the portrait of a media-savvy, image-conscious, revolutionary - a "rock star and rebel" in the playwright's words.
Douglass was the most photographed person of his century - more so than even Abraham Lincoln - and this was no accident. Well-dressed with an unsmiling face, now often interpreted as stodgy or severe, was a very conscious decision on his part to buck racist tropes in the art of his day and present himself as the equal of any man or woman.
Also key to the Douglass story is water. Whether working the docks in Maryland and Massachusetts, crossing the Atlantic to Europe, living alongside the mighty Genesee River in Rochester, NY, or at his final home in Anacostia, water was ever present. So, it is fitting that Solas Nua has taken us outside the box (theatre) and is staging The Frederick Douglass Project at The Yards Marina.
Site-specific performances are nothing new for this innovative company. Their 2016 production of another Deirdre Kinahan work, Wild Sky, was performed in private homes and a 2014 performance of Bradley O'Gill and the Little People by Tom Swift brought art to the community in locations like the Dupont Circle Farmers' Market, Eastern Market, and the Dubliner and Kelly's Irish Times pubs.
With support from a grant through the DC Commission for Arts and Humanities, Solas Nua will also bring the production to more than 400 DC Public School students with performances and workshops at the Metropolitan AME Church, where Douglass once worshipped.
Both Daugherty and Psalmeyene 24 hope audiences will leave this production with not only a greater appreciation for the man behind the persona, but with a thirst to learn more, to dig deeper. "I hope that we will inspire a shift in conversation and texture," says Psalmeyene 24. Quoting Kenneth B. Morris Jr., Douglass' great-great-great grandson and the co-founder of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, he reminds us that we are only "one set of hands removed from slavery".