If 19th-century black freedom champion Frederick Douglass were alive today, would he be a hip-hop star?
He certainly displays a Kendrick-like flow and Drake-like wit, and the ability to throw some shade in “Frederick Douglass Now,” a 70-minute solo show by playwright/performer Roger Guenveur Smith that kicked off Penumbra Theatre’s Claude Purdy Festival of solo works.
The Douglass of this piece is not some remote historical figure but someone speaking to us today. Smith, who first presented “Douglass” while a student at Yale more than two decades ago, is probably best known for his roles in the films of Spike Lee, including the mentally impaired Smiley in “Do the Right Thing.” But he’s also a commanding master of the one-person show, having done incantatory ones on Black Panther leader Huey Newton, reggae icon Bob Marley and Rodney King, the motorist whose beating at the hands of police sparked urban tremors in 1990s Los Angeles.
Dressed in a three-piece suit and wielding a microphone, he performs under a giant American flag that hangs over a white rectangle on a black stage.
Smith is a hypnotic storyteller who knows the power of the whisper. Despite the mic, he doesn’t so much declaim as speak to us in confidence, getting us to lean into his cadences as his body bends and twists ever so slightly, like a hose responding to the rush of water.
While Smith wrote the prologue and epilogue that bookend the piece, the bulk of “Douglass” is drawn from the abolitionist’s own words, including “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” The performer captures the abolitionist’s subtle and cutting wit. In an excerpt from Douglass’ letter to his former master, the sarcasm is thick.
But Smith weaves in contemporary references, from Bob Marley to Eric Garner (“I can’t breathe”), and even a recording of Marvin Gaye’s performance of the national anthem. Smith himself sings Douglass’ words in a number called “Civil War,” one that recalls Marley’s setting of Haile Selassie’s words to the tune “War.”
“Douglass” lands at a moment when there’s yet more turmoil in the American soul. But the takeaway from this show is not just that the past is alive and ricocheting through the present. It’s that Douglass seems thoroughly up-to-date — something Smith demonstrates during a bit when Douglass interrupts a singalong spiritual to take a phone call.
“Oh, it’s Harriet Tubman, everybody,” he says, showing us the Underground Railroad’s heroine’s black-and-white mug on his phone. While the talk in “Douglass” is of big themes — slavery and freedom — there’s a place for warmth, levity and deep emotion, too.
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