Review: AMERICAN PROPHET: FREDERICK DOUGLASS IN HIS OWN WORDS Premieres at Arena Stage

A provocative and inspiring new musical, AMERICAN PROPHET: FREDERICK DOUGLASS IN HIS OWN WORDS, premieres at Arena Stage now through August 28th.

By: Jul. 30, 2022
Review: AMERICAN PROPHET: FREDERICK DOUGLASS IN HIS OWN WORDS Premieres at Arena Stage
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A provocative and inspiring new musical, American Prophet: Frederick Douglass In His Own Words, premieres at Arena Stage now through August 28th. Created by Charles Randolph-Wright (Motown the Musical) and Grammy Award-winning songwriter Marcus Hummon, American Prophet pulls directly from Douglass's expansive archive of speeches, writings, and autobiographies to tell the story of his ascension to the status of legendary abolitionist, orator, and author by which he is recognized today. More than a mere retelling of Douglass's life, American Prophet is a stirring tale about love, community, hope, and resilience against all odds--with a full roster of phenomenal musical numbers to boot.

American Prophet is rich in poetry and feeling. Certainly, the source material provides a sturdy foundation in this sense. But the breadth of emotion in the text and skill of the actors are able to flourish against an elegant, minimalist light wood set (designed by Arnulfo Maldonado) with some gorgeous lighting, too (courtesy of Rui Rita). This minimalist choice works well, allowing the bigger, bolder elements to shine in a play that refuses to hold back.

The cast of American Prophet stands on a minimalist stage, lit in pinks and blues, singing.
The cast of American Prophet photographed by Margot Schulman.

From the beginning, American Prophet dives head-first into Douglass's turbulent and violent early years, chronicling the brutality and hypocrisy he experienced from white Americans in the North and South throughout his enslavement and search for freedom. The first act is action-packed and fast-moving as the play recounts his early life, quickly providing the audience with the foundation on which Douglass's writing and activism were based, from enslavement, learning to read and write, falling in love with Anna Murray, escaping to New York, and meeting key anti-slavery figures as he rises to prominence within the movement.

Cornelius Smith Jr. confidently embodies Frederick Douglass throughout. It is a pleasure to watch him at work on stage, especially in these early scenes as he navigates the varying levels of maturity and self-assuredness held by Douglass throughout this assortment of foundational memories. As both the older Douglass who looks back on history and the younger Douglass who lives it directly, his presence on stage is compelling. Smith Jr.'s prowess on stage, heightened further by the power of the musical numbers and the strength of his voice, encourages audience members to build an appreciation for the poeticism and oratory power of Douglass himself. To have Douglass' words brought to life again so skillfully is really something special.

As the story homes in on Douglass's rise in prominence as an abolitionist orator and writer, his wife Anna takes on much narrative power. Anna Murray Douglass (Kristolyn Lloyd), like many women in history, is a largely ignored figure despite her role in the anti-slavery movement. Pulling from stories passed down through generations of Anna and Frederick's descendants, American Prophet reinstates Anna in Frederick's story and the broader abolitionist movement while calling out the way she, and many like her, have been forced into obscurity. "I am flesh and bone to his future face in stone," Anna sings at one point. Thankfully, her relationship with Frederick and her role in enabling both his freedom and his abolitionist work are central to the story American Prophet tells about Douglass's rise to fame.

<a target=Kristolyn Lloyd (Anna Murray Douglass) and Cornelius Smith Jr. (Frederick Douglass) in American Prophet." height="233" src="https://cloudimages.broadwayworld.com/upload13/2188702/american-prophet-schulman-07-web.jpeg" width="350" />
Kristolyn Lloyd (Anna Murray Douglass) and Cornelius Smith Jr. (Frederick Douglass) in American Prophet. Photo credit: Margot Schulman.

As such, American Prophet takes vital steps in interrogating a far too-common habit many of us have: the iconizing and idolizing of prominent historical figures. Anna is Frederick's counterpart, confidante, and companion. Time and time again in American Prophet, particularly in the emotionally turbulent second act, Anna is the necessary voice of reason and, above all, hope. She steadies Douglass as he battles with his anger, fame, self-doubt, despair, and the sacrifices he must make in pursuit of a higher cause. She is key to him retaining enough hope to keep fighting, even as the enormity of the battle ahead threatens to overwhelms him.

This is what takes American Prophet as a historical retelling to the next level. The less glamorous emotional and domestic work done in the shadows is just as vital to the success of movements such as this. Liberatory work cannot be done in silos, the show insists. In reinforcing this idea with Anna's character, the show lovingly demonstrates the ways in which our networks of loved ones sustain us, keep us buoyed, through even the hardest times.

American Prophet is now playing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater through August 28, 2022. The run time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. Purchase tickets here.

Photo credit: Margot Schulman.




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