Frederick Douglass is famous in history for being an abolitionist leader and visionary. Although his life and writings are often taught about, his journey to becoming the icon that he was is not often discussed or shown.
The new musical at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, “American Prophet: Frederick Douglass in His Own Words,” seeks to explore the details of Douglass’s life from illiterate slave to a prominent national figure, with a focus on his evolution as a man and abolitionist.
“American Prophet” came to be when director Charles Randolph-Wright went to Nashville, Tenn. to meet songwriter Marcus Hummon and hear some songs he had written as part of a project he was working on about Frederick Douglass. From the very first song, the music blew Randolph-Wright away.
“I thought this is the way to tell this story right now because music does something that nothing else can do,” he said. “Music can heal. Music gives a different voice to things literally. And so I knew ‘wow. This is the way to tell the story right now.’”
The storyline will focus on Douglass’s growth as a person, writer, and prominent figure. It describes his struggle with taking up the mantle and becoming the person, or prophet, so many around him wanted him to be.
“It’s the younger Frederick, who had to discover who he was, how to do this, what is that,” said Randolph-Wright. “Music allows that, so it’s such a great way to get inside of him, to have him question, to have him wonder.”
It was important to Randolph-Wright that the audience gets to see Douglass differently than the white-haired statesman that is often depicted in photos of him.
“You get to see a journey of him questioning himself,” he said. “He’s on this pedestal for all of us, so you get to step up with him or he gets to step down with you. Whatever that is, you get to get inside of his journey.”
The show also highlights Douglass’s partnership with his wife, who was a huge part in his success, and someone typically kept in the periphery. Randolph-Wright was able to talk to some descendants of Frederick and Anna, who helped him learn more about Anna, since there is very little written about her.
“As is often the case with women and women in the movement, they’re not heard, they’re not seen and and there’s very little written about
], so this musical allowed us to give her a voice and a musical voice, a physical voice,” said Randolph-Wright.
Kristolyn Lloyd, who plays Anna, is a stage and TV actress from the suburbs of Houston. She won both an Emmy and a Grammy for her performance in Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway. In addition to her role on Broadway, she has credits for many off-Broadway performances, and TV credits on shows such as Elementary and Madam Secretary.
Playing the part of Frederick Douglass is Cornelius Smith Jr, who is an actor native to Detroit. He was nominated for a daytime Emmy for his role as Frankie Hubbard in the soap opera All My Children, and is most famous for portraying Marcus Walker on Scandal.
“American Prophet” is Randolph-Wright’s 12 production at Arena Stage. The show runs July 15 through August 28 in the Kreeger Theater. You can purchase tickets at https://tickets.arenastage.org/events/32349.