Review: “DOUGLASS” (the american vicarious)

De'Lon Grant/Photo: Evan Barr.
De’Lon Grant/Photo: Evan Barr.

Show: “DOUGLASS”

Company: the american vicarious

Venue: Theater Wit (1227 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 8

Early on in the american vicarious’ “DOUGLASS,” one white abolitionist admonishes another: fine speeches about the illogical nature of slavery are well and good, but what about the lack of sentiment involved in such diatribes? More citizens would be won over to the anti-slavery movement if their hearts were engaged, as well as their heads. Has her friend, by chance, read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” He dismisses the popular novel (and eventual stage play) as melodramatic claptrap, but agrees that a man of color must speak to the experience of slavery, in order to horrify audiences into action. That man is Frederick Douglass.

Now revered for his amazing mind and oratorical skill, world premiere “DOUGLASS” focuses on Frederick (an excellent De’Lon Grant) at the start of his journey in the 1840’s. After reading William Lloyd Garrison’s (Mark Ulrich) uncompromising anti-slavery words in The Liberator, Douglass becomes convinced that he, too, can help the cause, by starting and sustaining the first newspaper run by an African American man in Boston. But wealthy abolitionist Miss West (Carrie Lee Patterson) and Garrison hold back financing for Douglass’ paper in order to motivate him to speak about his experiences as a former slave. The more time Douglass spends making speeches on behalf of others, the more he begins to wonder if he is merely a puppet for the abolitionist movement, rather than one of its leaders. As Douglass’ views on compromise and the Constitution change, Garrison’s become more unyielding, and the two men head towards an ideological conflict.

Mark Ulrich and De'Lon Grant/Photo: Evan Barr.
Mark Ulrich and De’Lon Grant/Photo: Evan Barr.

Which sounds like dry viewing, I am sure, given that oratory and publishing are the major dramatic concerns here. But playwright Thomas Klingenstein never misses an opportunity to highlight how Douglass’ development is hindered by the society he lives in. This is the story of a man hampered by the large ideals and small crimes of others. We watch Douglass as he builds support and debates whether or not he is too ambitious or too compromising for white abolitionists. The debates between Douglass and Garrison touch on matters as continually contemporary as the perception of black skin and the organization and silencing of black voices. And the differences cut to the bone, as Garrison uses increasingly personal attacks to win Douglass back to his way of thinking.

Director Christopher McElroen stages a spare production, with the actors shaping the action and time on set designer William Boles’ splintering wooden platform. Grant is an imposing figure, always in charge of any room he enters, and his command breaks only in his speeches about the slave experience. Ulrich ping-pongs around the stage, his fiery demands gathering strength with each affront (though he seemed to struggle with his lines at moments in the first act). Patterson represents a calming influence, as does the unpretentious Kristin Ellis, who plays Anna, Douglass’ wife. Ellis has the difficult job of acting as a naysayer to her husband, and while the script does not flesh out the dynamics of their marriage, Ellis makes them clear simply in the way she moves around her home. Likewise, Kenn E. Head as Delany, a Back-to-Africa proponent, provides a sounding board for Douglass when he is surrounded by white voices, and his sardonic nature suits the character.

De'Lon Grant and Kristin Ellis/Photo: Evan Barr.
De’Lon Grant and Kristin Ellis/Photo: Evan Barr.

“DOUGLASS” is touted as a multimedia production by the american vicarious. Projection designer Liviu Pasare paints the back wall of the space with portraits of Douglass and Garrison, as each addresses the public. In the second act, their faces are covered with hashtags and at signs, possibly calling to mind the Black Lives Matter movement and its Twitter presence. The flourishes are distracting, as the script easily connects Douglass’ concerns about power and justice to those we harbor today. More off-putting is Sarah Espinoza’s sound design. The transition music between scenes is well-chosen, ranging from hip-hop to hymnals, but the sound levels were ear-splitting in the production’s intimate Theater Wit space. The music took me out of the performance, rather than drawing me deeper in.

Early in the play, Douglass abandons discussion of his life as a slave for philosophical statements about whether African American men and women can be considered full citizens of the United States. Garrison finds his switch as distasteful as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The irony, of course, is that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was melodrama meant to enlighten white audiences, just as Douglass’ tortured descriptions were. “DOUGLASS” posits that Frederick’s power to disrupt and compromise came from his insistence on speaking to men and women of color, as well as whites. Thus, the real engagement comes not from sentiment, but from speaking one’s truth, especially if those around you are not ready.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: History comes alive in well-written debate over slavery.

DICE RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”