Renown actor and CalArts faculty member Roger Guenveur Smith embodies one of America’s great social reformers in the solo show Frederick Douglass Now, presented at CalArts on Tuesday (Jan. 17) for the Institute’s Art, Justice & Global Aesthetics: The Equity and Diversity Lecture Series.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) escaped slavery to become a leader in the abolitionist movement as well as an impassioned supporter of women’s rights and suffrage. Douglass is remembered for his masterful oratory skills and powerful antislavery writings.
In the CalArts Center for New Performance production, Smith interprets Douglass’s texts and infuses his own original narratives in the mix.
From a 2009 New York Times review of Frederick Douglass Now at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan:
Standing jauntily in front of an American flag, he begins with a rapid-fire riff, darting among epochs and through a variety of contemporary cadences that mix the sounds of poetry slam, hip-hop and the old-style preacher.
“I am a movie star/Gun at the ready,” he spits out before pivoting. “My image plastered on plantation walls/Next to the malt liquor ads.” Jarring juxtapositions (“I know how to do the Black Panther stomp/And the Charleston”) spill out of Mr. Smith’s motor mouth with little apparent direction.
At the heart of the play are Douglass’s words, spoken, sung and emoted with entertaining conviction. At his best Mr. Smith finds resonance in these sober passages, like Douglass’s argument for why running away from his master was moral, in which he gives credence to the position of the master before dispatching it with brutal logic.
In addition to Frederick Douglass Now, which was commissioned off-off Broadway by the late theater director and producer Ellen Stewart, Smith’s other history-infused plays include Christopher Columbus 1992, Who Killed Bob Marley; In Honor of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Iceland, Juan and John and the Obie Award-winning A Huey P. Newton Story, which he adapted into a Peabody Award-winning telefilm, directed by Spike Lee.
Roger Guenveur Smith: Frederick Douglass Now
CalArts Modular Theater
Tuesday, Jan. 17
Free, but reservations required