Theater Critic: “American Prophet” Frederick Douglass in his own words at Arena Stage


Cornelius Smith Jr. as Frederick Douglass and the cast of “American Prophet”. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The spirit of Frederick Douglass once again graces the nation’s capital in a world premiere of “American Prophet.” The musical, based on his writings and speeches, resoundingly demands racial justice in America more than 125 years after the great orator, author and abolitionist roamed the streets of Washington, DC and settled in Anacostia.

…a powerful new musical… If you only see one show this summer, make it ‘American Prophet’.

Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, with music by Grammy Award winner Marcus Hummon (they both also wrote the book), “American Prophet” is filled to the brim with catchy tunes and memorable melodies that keep you going. action at a brisk pace. The story encompasses Douglass’ years as a child slave in Maryland, his escape to freedom, and finally his rise to fame as the founder of the civil rights movement in America.

Notable performances abound. Douglass’ grandmother, Betsey Bailey (Cicily Daniels) sings a haunting, “If I Were Your Mother,” to young Frederick Douglass (Cornelius Smith Jr.) who has only the faintest memory of his mother, him having been removed. as an infant. When Douglass first meets his wife, Anna Murray Douglass (Kristolyn Lloyd), the two sing a touching duet, “Children of the Same River.” The second act features abolitionist John Brown’s “Hands,” sung as he prepares to take up arms to free slaves. Two standout duets, “I Love a Man” and “Let the Storm Come”, are performed by Frederick and Anna as expressions of the challenges they encountered in engaging in wrestling and each other. A cover of “We Need a Fire”, sung by the whole ensemble, closes the show.

Thomas Adrian Simpson (Abraham Lincoln) plays a sympathetic and honorable Lincoln, while communicating the president’s need to evolve in his understanding of the issue of slavery. Kurt Boem (Reverend Gore and Edward Covey) corners the market for white male arrogance, and Chris Roberts embodies the rage and impatience of John Brown, a visionary abolitionist ahead of his time. Kristolyn Lloyd projects Anna Douglass’ sharp intellect and fierce devotion to the cause, and sleek, erudite, and feisty Cornelius Smith Jr. projects such authenticity he just might be Douglass back from the grave.

The drama of a nation on the march towards civil war unfolds against a minimalist set by Arnulfo Moldonado, which allows for greater emphasis on the intensity of the subject, a powerfully delivered score under the direction of musical director, Joseph Joubert, who also provided the orchestrations and lush period costumes for Dede Ayite.

This powerful new musical speaks to the continuing racial animosity of contemporary America in the words of an American prophet – words that still ring true, still wield raw power and can still convince us that “we need a fire”. If you only see one show this summer, make it “American Prophet.”

Duration: 2 hours 15 minutes including 1 intermission of 15 minutes.

“American Prophet” runs through August 28, 2022 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC 20024. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 202-488-3300 or click on here. Arena Stage requires all patrons to show proof of full vaccination and wear a mask inside the Mead Center as well as in the theatre.

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