In an affecting mashup of historical perspective and current-day poetry slam and rap music performance, Roger Guenveur Smith brings the famed African-American abolitionist orator, woman suffragist, publisher, and runaway slave Frederick Douglass, not just to life, but to flesh-and-blood vibrancy in today's world with "Frederick Douglass Now."
Playing at LA's Bootleg Theatre through August 24th, Smith's riveting one-man performance shapeshifts from a singalong with Marvin Gay's last public performance singing the National Anthem, to discourses on running The North Star, Douglass's abolitionist newspaper that he produced for years in Upstate New York -- interrupted by a cellphone chat with famed Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman. Smith interweaves contemporary themes into this one-man show that shines a light on the brilliance of Fredrick Douglass while also honoring others who have played a role in the struggle for racial and gender equality in the United States.
Speaking, singing, dancing -- and, yes, even talking on the phone -- Smith doesn't so much represent his subject as he inhabits him, masterfully channeling Douglass's outrage and passion and eloquence in the theatre's American flag-bedecked stage. Even bringing elements of today's atrocities into the play, Smith concludes with the suddenly famous "#ICantBreathe" hashtag as an homage to Eric Garner, the man killed by New York's Finest for selling "loosies" -- single cigarettes sold to people who can't afford a full pack -- on New York's Staten Island.
After developing the performance as a senior project at nearby Occidental College, Smith has performed "Frederick Douglass Now" around the world for 20 years, in venues small and large.
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"Wynton Marsalis accompanied me once. I performed it at the Kennedy Center, in London," Smith said outside on the theatre's patio after Saturday night's performance. "It's drawn directly from Douglass's works -- his letters, speeches, editorials -- all presented word for word, in chronological order."
Smith knows his subject well, having served as a graduate research assistant at Yale's Frederick Douglass Papers collection. After studying at Yale University and Occidental College, he has taught at both institutions, as well as at Cal Arts, where he currently directs his Performing History Workshop.
Smith has made a career of bringing seminal black figures to life on stage and screen, including recently the teleplay "Huey P. Newton Story" and his recent play, "Rodney King."
“Frederick Douglass Now,” Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 24. $10 to $15. (213) 389-3856 or www.bootlegtheater.org. Running time: 55 minutes.
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