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Strange in a Good Way

Date: Oct 06, 2009


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In Hollywood, the announcement of two very similar projects more or less amounts to an obituary for one of them. But two off-Broadway companies with two very specific demographics have forged a curious alliance, each using its own talent pool and viewpoint to approach Frederick Douglass through a different lens.

On the face of it, Classical Theatre of Harlem seems more likely to address the life and words of the most famous escaped slave in American history. And in Frederick Douglass Now, CTH veteran Roger Guenveur Smith plays a century-hopping version of Douglass who dispenses “dime bags of truth” as he name-checks everyone from Ida B. Wells to Lauryn Hill, from Henry Box Brown to Marvin Gaye.

But Smith isn’t performing in Harlem. He’s ninety-five blocks south at the Irish Arts Center, alongside The Cambria, Donal O’Kelly’s inventive telling of Douglass’s 1845 sea voyage to Ireland. O’Kelly and Sorcha Fox play more than a dozen characters -- including Douglass himself, who fled America upon the publication of his acclaimed autobiography.

“It’s such a great fit, and a great partnership, both ideologically and creatively,” O’Kelly says of the pairing, which is billed as two separate works collectively titled Cambria/Douglass. “It’s a bit incongruous, but in a good way. All original creativity looks incongruous at first.”

Both pieces have been performed in various cities, including brief stopovers in New York. The IAC presented The Cambria in a one-week run earlier this year, and the theatre’s executive director, Aidan Connolly, suggested packaging the two plays after seeing Smith’s piece in Washington, D.C. (The plays are presented in association with CTH.)

The plays also chart Douglass’ impact on the 21st century. Cambria begins and ends with present-day scenes, and Frederick Douglass Now interweaves large chunks of Douglass’s writings with poetry slam-style riffs on how Douglass might interpret our allegedly post-racial society.

“Conceptually and politically, neither of us is interested in nostalgia,” says Smith, who is best known for his Obie Award-winning A Huey P. Newton Story, another one-man show about an incendiary African-American. “We’ve both tried to address contemporary dilemmas.”

O’Kelly, for his part, is comfortable both with playing a black man on stage and with writing new dialogue for one of the world’s greatest orators. “Being intimidated ain’t going to help you,” he says. “You just have to ask for the blessing and hope it comes to you. But I’ve certainly tried to remain true to the spirit and legacy of Frederick Douglass.”

After 20 years of performing various forms of the Douglass piece, Smith has no intention of stopping; a formative theatre experience for him was Hal Holbrook’s landmark solo show Mark Twain Tonight, and he is particularly enamored of the way Holbrook accumulated reams of Twain material to use in whatever order he deemed suitable at any specific performance. “I’d love to do that with Douglass,” he says.

Where’s the first place he’d like to take the current incarnation of Frederick Douglass Now?  Ireland.

Eric Grode was theater critic at the New York Sun from 2005 to 2008. He has also written for the New York Times, New York magazine, American Theatre and the Village Voice.