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.
The new musical, with vivid central performances by Cornelius Smith Jr. and Kristolyn Lloyd as Frederick and Anna Douglass, channels Douglass’s power through some astute culling of his journalism, autobiographies and speeches. (Its subtitle is “Frederick Douglass in His Own Words.”) The conceit invests the work of Hummon and co-book writer Charles Randolph-Wright — who also supplies excellent direction — with historical accuracy. It also gives them a lyrical leg up, as there is undeniable music in Douglass’s elegantly persuasive turns of phrase.
“We need the storm, we need the whirlwind, and for the nation’s sake, we need the earthquake,” Douglass and the ensemble sing, in the stirring chorale, “We Need a Fire.” As a first-act finale, the song — incorporating some twists on Douglass’s phraseology — is a kind of motivational summation of the experiences of the young Douglass, after escaping slavery and making an extraordinary ascent to ever-greater influence. When the song is reprised at evening’s end, the lyrics will seem to travel through time in Arena’s Kreeger Theater to implore us to continue the fight against racism and injustice.
A worshipful dimension of “American Prophet” cannot be denied: Music director Joseph Joubert sits at a keyboard below the lip of the stage, his back to the audience, as if he were the church organist, and Arnulfo Maldonado’s terraced, wood-paneled set could support a heavenly choir. A sense of putting Douglass’s best foot forward carries over into the narrative, which is careful not to portray the great man as anything but dignified. It’s not so much a flaw on this rewarding evening as an indication of a need for some loosening up — more humor — in the show’s next incarnation. Some additional poetic license might also be called for to convey the toll Douglass’s outspokenness took on him and his family, for instance, and what vulnerability might be touched in such a strong-willed crusader, in such lethal times.
The musical chronicles the first half of Douglass’s life, from his enslaved childhood in Maryland, where he’s taught to read by a sympathetic White woman, to his activist years leading up to the Civil War and a White House encounter with Abraham Lincoln (Thomas Adrian Simpson). The backbone of the story — and according to the musical, the woman who reinforces his spine — is Anna, who is played by Lloyd with such dazzling presence that Douglass’s wife emerges as a star, too. (Costume designer Dede Ayite’s marvelous dresses, with pinched waists and full, flowing skirts, assist aptly in the magnetism.)
Kristolyn Lloyd and Cornelius Smith Jr. as Anna and Frederick Douglass in “American Prophet.” (Margot Schulman/Arena Stage)
Smith makes for a winningly virile, impassioned Douglass. The other star here is Hummon, a fixture in Nashville’s country music community, who has found a ravishing musical language to match Douglass’s. “American Prophet” started several years ago as a modest song cycle, performed in a Tennessee church, and the production’s roots in oratorio are still apparent. With jazz, blues and bluegrass motifs, his score abounds in authentic American flavors, underscoring a central point of “American Prophet”: that despite Douglass’s professed ambivalence about this country, he was not just a hero, he was an American hero.
Hummon grants Smith and Lloyd a radiant number at their first meeting at a Baltimore dance: “Children of the Same River,” about their common connection to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. And Chris Roberts, nuclear-charged as firebrand abolitionist John Brown, receives well-deserved opportunities to shake up an audience in the rousing “We Need a Fire,” as well as a spirit-raising anthem, “Hands,” to spur on Brown’s uprising.
The musical’s score, accompanied by a seven-member orchestra, often unfolds with only brief bits of dialogue. The approach requires the score to rapidly incorporate momentous pivots in the Douglasses’ story, such as his escape from slavery, or Anna’s involvement in the Underground Railroad. As a result, an audience member will reap the most satisfaction entering the Kreeger with some knowledge of Douglass’s astonishing life.
And because so much of “American Prophet” hews to Douglass’s own words, any shift of focus is a bonus. One of the more interesting interludes is a musical account of how Douglass adopted his surname. In the Act 2 song “Mr. President,” too, Hummon has the inspired idea of musicalizing the regrets of three Black leaders who meet with Lincoln and make the mistake of not speaking their minds to him.
“We all come from somewhere else, Mr. President!” sings the trio (played by Christopher B. Portley, Correy West and Curtis Wiley), to the alluring choreography of Lorna Ventura. “That’s what we should have said!”
You get the sense in “American Prophet” that Douglass himself never left anything unsaid. It’s a credit now to this creative team that enshrining him in a musical means his words will never be unsung.
American Prophet, music and lyrics by Marcus Hummon, book by Hummon and Charles Randolph-Wright. Directed by Randolph-Wright. Choreography, Lorna Ventura; music direction and orchestrations, Joseph Joubert; set, Arnulfo Maldonado; costumes, Dede Ayite; lighting, Rui Rita; sound, Dan Moses Schreier. With Erica Aubrey, Cicily Daniels, Kanysha Williams, Christopher Michael Richardson, Kurt Boehm, Brendon Schaefer, Zoe Bryant. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Aug. 28 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.
Morris is the great-great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, orator and polymath. On Thursday he joined a Washington audience that included the supreme court justice Ketanji Brown Jackson for the world premiere of American Prophet, a stage musical powered by Douglass’s speeches and writings.
Morris was particularly pleased to see the show spotlight his great-great-great-grandmother Anna Murray Douglass who, despite being married to the anti-slavery activist for 44 years, was overlooked in his writing and sometimes denigrated by historians.
“It’s so beautiful to see my ancestors come to life on stage,” Morris said after the performance at Arena Stage ended with a standing ovation. “It’s been a longstanding lament in my family that Anna has not received the dignity and respect that she deserves in history. There would be no Frederick Douglass without her.”
The 60-year-old, who sat beside his mother, Nettie Washington Douglass, added: “It’s just really emotional to be able to see my ancestors. Their blood flows through my veins.”
American Prophet is the latest marker of a Douglass renaissance in popular culture. The story of how he escaped slavery as a young man to become a leading thinker, speaker and star – the most photographed man of the 19th century – was told in a Pulitzer prize-winning biography by David Blight in 2018 and his speeches featured in an HBO documentary film earlier this year.
Cornelius Smith Jr as Frederick Douglass in American Prophet. Photograph: Arena Stage
It suggests that former US president Donald Trump got his tenses confused but was not entirely wrong when he observed: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”
Now Douglass has got the Hamilton treatment – sort of. Development of American Prophet began in 2015, the same year that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop influenced musical about the founding fathers made its debut and became a sensation.
Like Hamilton, the show features a president (in this case Abraham Lincoln) bursting into song, a score (by Marcus Hummon) that crosses style barriers and a meditation on legacy and “who tells your story” (Anna, noting that her husband’s name will be remembered by history, asks: “But will mine? Will mine?”)
But whereas Hamilton has received criticism in recent years for underplaying slavery in the national origins story, American Prophet puts the issue front and centre. There are flashbacks to Douglass’s early life in bondage when Anna (Kristolyn Lloyd), a conductor on the underground railroad, encourages him to flee. “My children will not have a slave for a father,” she tells him. “You are not a slave.”
At one point Douglass (Cornelius Smith Jr) recites his celebrated speech: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
And a Douglass call to action is turned into a rousing musical number: “It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” At the climax of the show, he addresses the audience directly and asks them to consider what their contribution to justice will be. “Agitate. Agitate. Agitate!” he urges.
For Morris, who is president of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, a non-profit organisation that works to combat human trafficking and racism, and who worked as a consultant on the production, such a cry is more pertinent then ever in the Washington of 2022.
He said: “His words still 170 years later resonate, unfortunately. There’s still a lot of work to be done. But we need his voice and we need to be inspired by the great freedom fighters that came before us because we’re living at a time when the country is as divided as it’s been in a long time with the racist, sexist, xenophobic rhetoric that is out there.
“In the 19th century they ‘othered’ people of African descent to justify taking away their humanity and treating them inhumanely. They would say things like, ‘They’re better off in slavery. Listen to the happy songs that they’re singing. They’re getting the Christian religion.’
“When we think about making a group of people an ‘other’, I think about things like ‘They’re coming to invade our country, they’re rapists or criminals’, justifying mistreating a group of people so that their children can be put in cages. History is not just about the past, but it’s also about the present and it’s about the future as well.”
The sentiments were echoed by Charles Randolph-Wright, the show’s director and co-scriptwriter. After Thursday night’s performance, Randolph-Wright took the stage and said: “It’s so important that we figure out a way to communicate and that’s what we hope for with this piece, that you all, every single one of you, goes out and agitates because that’s what we must do. We have no choice. We do need the fire as Frederick told us 170 years ago.”
He added: “At a time when critical race theory, Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass will not be taught in schools, we have to find the way that it is taught, that they learn about these extraordinary people. And there are so many that did this, so many women who’ve always been ignored in the movement. It’s imperative that we now see and hear them.”
Douglass was born in 1818, escaped from slavery in 1838 and became a prominent abolitionist, conveying to audiences the horror of his first-hand experience and touring Britain and Ireland.
American Prophet is set between 1851 and 1865 with flashbacks to his past. It charts Douglass’s complicated interactions with the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, extremist John Brown and President Lincoln, whose assassination on Thursday night prompted one audience member to exclaim, “Oh, shit!”
In a Zoom interview this week, Randolph-Wright, 65, reflected: “Hamilton just blew open the door of what we could do, especially for younger audiences to want to discover history. I hope that we can do that same thing with this storytelling and I hope people are hungry for it. We need to understand where we’ve been to deal with where we are and where we’re going.”
The musical was originally supposed to be staged in the summer of 2020 but was postponed by the coronavirus pandemic. Randolph-Wright added: “My view of this show is radically different now in 2022 than it was in 2020.
Cornelius Smith Jr as Frederick Douglass and the cast of American Prophet. Photograph: Arena Stage
“Being in Washington when all of the things are happening with January 6, with the supreme court – we’re rehearsing and trying to go in and do this work and all this around us is insanity. That’s what was around Frederick and he dealt with it and tried to figure out what was the answer. The answer changes.”
Randolph-Wright, who comes from a long line of civil rights activists, found Douglass’s words both beautiful and prescient. “They are what he wrote about 170 years ago and this we are still dealing with, especially what people of colour deal with every single day in this country, what women deal with, all of it.
“Those words still resonate so strongly. I’ve had friends who’ve come to this show already and they say, ‘You wrote those, right?’ I’m like, ‘No, no, that’s his speech word for word.’”
The words also struck a chord with the opening night audience at Arena Stage. Jamie Stiehm, 61, a columnist and historian who has studied Douglass, said the musical format worked: “It was so passionate, it was so serious, it wasn’t light and whimsical. It didn’t trivialise anything. It ended on that note of ‘we need the fire’ and to ‘agitate’. I thought the actors brought that to life and he himself would have been pleased with the production.”
Check out rehearsal photos and video below!
American Prophet opens tonight, July 15 and runs through August 28, 2022.
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF TONY POWELL | WASHINGTON POST
Not only sings, but dances, too. That dignified figure staring out of countless black-and-white images now moves to the beat of a score by Nashville-based country music composer Marcus Hummon. “Of course he danced!” declared the musical’s director and co-book writer, Charles Randolph-Wright. “I mean, he met his wife at a dance. He was fascinated by everything; he learned violin late in his life. He had that mind that did not stop, that inquisitive mind.”
“We wanted to humanize him, because he’s held up on this pedestal as this iconic figure from history,” Morris said in a Zoom interview. The scale and intensity of Douglass’s fame and advocacy were prodigious, particularly on the issue of ending slavery, but also on education, voting rights and equality for women. “I know, being in the family and also working with scholars that have researched my family,” Morris added, “that the stories about him that humanize him are just fantastic.”
It’s hard to imagine how the story of Douglass’s remarkable life and achievements — the escape from slavery and campaigning for emancipation, his careers as statesman and publisher, his peerless oratory — might be compressed into a couple of hours of exposition and song. Which also seems to have occurred to the creative team. They decided to narrow their focus to events in his biography leading up to the Civil War — a time Randolph-Wright calls Douglass’s “badass period, his activist period, his insurgent period, when he was in his 40s, when he was becoming the American prophet.”
For Hummon, a Grammy-winning songwriter who has composed for the likes of Tim McGraw, Wynonna Judd and the Dixie Chicks, it was the realization that Douglass’s own writings could propel the show’s melodies that cemented his creative path. “It ultimately was the poetry of his language that did it, that I started to hear music,” Hummon explained. “If you say, ‘It is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder,’ I mean, that’s verse. There are times when his oration and his writing simply shift in gear and become poetry.”
COURTESY OF TONY POWELL; WASHINGTON POST
Hummon had embarked on a modest song cycle about Douglass, after reading one of his three autobiographies that was performed at a Nashville church in the mid-2010s. “It was nice and I enjoyed it, but I kept reading and when I got to ‘Life and Times [of Frederick Douglass],’ then I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a huge story here,’ ” Hummon said. “I don’t know. I didn’t fully grasp it. And maybe I still don’t, still trying to, but I knew I needed help. I needed a writer-director to work with. And I had friends who said, ‘Yeah, we know who the guy is.’ ”
That guy was Randolph-Wright, an accomplished director at Arena (Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined”) whose Broadway musical theater projects have included “Motown,” a show built around the achievements of impresario Berry Gordy. As he has also been developing material for a piece about actor Sidney Poitier, Randolph-Wright wasn’t sure another slice of towering-figure drama was in order.
“My immediate response was: ‘uhhh,’ ” he recounted, mimicking exhaustion. But he traveled to Nashville to visit family, sat down to meet Hummon and listened to his music. “And the first song,” the director added, “went through my body.”
A network of interconnecting friendships also resulted in the participation of Morris, who with his mother, Nettie Washington Douglass, founded an organization in 2007, Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, that raises awareness of racism and human trafficking. He attended a 2019 reading of the musical at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where he met Randolph-Wright. “We became fast friends — we’re brothers now — and then I came on formally as a legacy consultant on the project,” Morris said. A piece of advice he conveyed has become central to the enterprise.
“I had said to Marcus and to Charles early on that my great-great-great-grandmother Anna needs to be portrayed and treated with the dignity and respect that she deserves. And that she has not received in history.”
Embodied by Kristolyn Lloyd — an original cast member on Broadway of “Dear Evan Hansen” — Frederick’s first wife, Anna Douglass, is elevated to a co-starring role. “She was a radical freedom fighter in her own right,” said Morris, whose illustrious ancestry does not end with the Douglasses; he is also the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington. “Anna and Frederick were married for 44 years. They had five children together. They had 21 grandchildren together. And she was a very important part of this.” (Douglass remarried after Anna’s death in 1882.)
A musical that might magnify Douglass’s perch in the popular imagination is for Morris both an emotional mission and a fitting amplification of his legacy. Douglass, he said, well understood the value of stamping a cause with a relatable, humanizing identity — one of the reasons he was such a vigorous early proponent of photography. In fact, a filmmaker suggested to Morris not too long ago that Douglass was “the inventor of the selfie.”
“He was talking about a selfie not as this frivolous thing that people do, but in presenting yourself and placing yourself out there in a way that you want people to see,” Morris said. “So you’re forming your own identity. And while he didn’t take the first picture of himself, he did create that idea of placing yourself out there, into the public consciousness in the way that you want to be seen.”
It is now Randolph-Wright and Hummon who will have a say in how Douglass is seen — and heard. And yes, even how he dances.
American Prophet, music and lyrics by Marcus Hummon, book by Hummon and Charles Randolph-Wright. Directed by Randolph-Wright. Through Aug. 28 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.
The narrative has been two-fold since Broadway returned in September, following an unprecedented 18-month shutdown: Broadway is back, but it’s also better.
These sentiments were underscored most visibly by something that had never happened before the 2021 season. The works of eight Black playwrights — alongside a community of predominantly Black directors, casts and crews — were going to be mounted across the nation’s largest theater district.
But tucked within the momentous celebration was an important question: Why hadn’t this happened yet?
While this type of question is frequently asked of the ceiling breakers, director Charles Randolph-Wright points to those who hold the answers — white counterparts and industry leaders who have historically had the power to remove the ceiling altogether for Black playwrights like Trouble in Mind’s Alice Childress.
“Ask them,” the director, writer and actor says. “Because we all did the work. We trained, we jumped through hoops. We did all the things you were supposed to do, and all too often, it did not happen.”
This experience of exclusion is among the many threads that link Randolph-Wright and Childress, two South Carolina-born artists and the creatives behind Roundabout Theater Company’s Broadway production of Trouble in Mind, which runs through Jan. 9 at the American Airlines Theatre.
When she was alive, Childress’ work never made the leap from Off-Broadway, where it debuted more than six decades ago. But the director, who first read the play while in college, says he shared her dream of telling this uncompromising story to a Broadway audience.
Ultimately, it would be not just the dream but Randolph-Wright’s unyielding tenacity — equal to that of the late playwright — that carried him through his 15-year quest to cement her in the Broadway canon and lexicon.
“Someone said that this was a lost classic,” Randolph-Wright recalls. “It wasn’t lost. Lost is when it’s in a drawer and someone doesn’t find it. It’s been there and regional theaters have performed it for years, but it’s never before gotten the acknowledgment of what a Broadway stamp does, what that pedigree does.”
Based on Childress’ own experiences with the theater, the show follows Black actress Wiletta Mayer (played by LaChanze) as she navigates the production of the anti-lynching play Chaos in Belleville alongside a mixed Black and white ensemble led by a white director. (In real life, Trouble in Mind‘s cast includes Jessica Frances Dukes, Don Stephenson, Simon Jones, Chuck Cooper, Michael Zegen, Alex Mickiewicz, Danielle Campbell and Brandon Micheal Hall alongside LaChanze — a company Randolph-Wright says “truly had the love for each other to be honest” and “brought the best to Alice’s words.”)
On stage, this show-within-a-show is pitched by its fictional white director as some newfangled look at racism in America, guaranteed to open the eyes and hearts of white audiences. But the disparaging treatment of Trouble in Mind’s fictional actors and the offensive representations they’ve been tasked with performing are a series of cuts for LaChanze’s Wiletta that eventually turn into a gaping wound.
No longer willing to settle personally or professionally, the actress demands the show’s Black company members be acknowledged in the creative process, risking her career and the entire show as she calls out the hypocrisy and racism of its white leadership.
“I directed it completely over the top because it is so wrong in how it is performed. The director in the play keeps saying to the actors, ‘I want you to be honest, I want the truth,’” Randolph-Wright says while recalling how he explained his directing approach to one of the actors. “I said, ‘You have to understand. That is his honesty, and that is his truth for Black characters to be so ridiculously stereotypical.’”
That sentiment is particularly striking after learning why Trouble in Mind hasn’t graced a Broadway stage before this fall. After opening on Off-Broadway in 1955, it was expected to debut in 1957. But white male producers asked the playwright, novelist and actress to tone down her story’s commentary about race.
Like her leading woman, Childress refused to censor herself — an act of bravery, notes Randolph-Wright — and so the dream of bringing her story, which deftly tackles racism, sexism, class and privilege in American theater, to Broadway’s stages was deferred. In this way, Trouble in Mind is a mirror for an industry the director says has given certain people “the entitlement and the privilege of saying, ‘I know better than you about who you are.’”
“They refused to put that on stage then, but people still have problems seeing that right now,” Randolph-Wright says. “I think it’s difficult because the people who control a lot of the work, I don’t think they want to put themselves up there on stage that way. So, bravo that Roundabout has placed this world on stage because it’s very accusatory of the whole system and speaks to how we change this system.”
It is all very meta, with no word changed in Childress’ script for its contemporary audience and nuanced helming from a director who says he has never had equity with his white peers. Randolph-Wright is also the first Black director LaChanze has had “in her 35-year career on Broadway in a leading role.”
“An actor was asking a question about the play being over the top, so I had every actor of color that day tell one story about a white director who told them how they should be Black,” Randolph-Wright says. “The youngest Black actor in this company, who has starred on a couple of television series and is in his 20s, even had this happen to him in the past few years.”
Trouble in Mind and this Broadway season, then, is not just a mirror. It’s a moment to splinter the past from the present for artists working at a time when, like the fictional play’s lead, “people have felt, ‘I am not doing this anymore. Some things will have to change.’”
“Who is designing the set of the house, who was putting them in the clothes, who is marketing the show? You may do this Black project, but you walk in the room and everyone who’s presenting this project — none of them look like you,” the director says of what inclusion has historically meant on Broadway. “So what has changed this season is that many people have received opportunities that they never received before.”
In Trouble in Mind, 12 performers and crew made their Broadway debut, including Black female lighting designer Kathy Perkins. She’s “worked all over the world,” including on Childress’ last show, Randolph-Wright says, but “never got her shot on Broadway before this year.” She’s now among less than a handful of Black lighting designers in the history of Broadway.
That shared experience across decades as Black artists “so used to not being seen and heard,” the director says, is why Childress’ work is so fortuitously fitting for Broadway’s current moment of self-reflection. While talks about the play’s Broadway debut with Roundabout had started years before the summer of 2020, it arrives amid a historic but deeply challenging time that could see artists’ work treated as both a pandemic test run and an indistinguishable creative mass.
“I didn’t want this play to be a knee-jerk reaction to last summer, for this to come out in the middle of all of this, on the front lines. I didn’t like the idea of, ‘Here we are again, a monolith,’” he says. “We were the canary thrown in. It was obvious to so many of us that this was the time but my fear was that if these plays failed, then they would say, ‘Well see? We tried.’”
And yet, the director concedes that Childress’ work may have debuted exactly when it needed to. Broadway seems finally ready to commit itself to the kind of creative authenticity and accountability Wiletta demands, thanks in no small part to this season’s swell of Black artists.
It’s a moment the director likens to the years following the 1918 influenza, which birthed the roaring ’20s and the Harlem Renaissance — a stark parallel that makes him wonder what theater’s renaissance will be after this pandemic. “Is this the beginning of that?” he asks.
If it is, it’s perhaps best illustrated not just by what’s happening on stage or behind the curtain but in front of it. Childress’ debut is among a collection of plays encouraging a shift in who makes up a “Broadway audience,” with Randolph-Wright calling responses to the play from Black students especially “breathtaking.” White viewers, he says, are changed, too.
“In 2019, the typical Broadway white audience would not have heard this play the same way they are hearing it now,” the director says. “Alice is getting her due at a time when people are realizing things they would not even think about before — that wasn’t even in their periphery.”
Few stars shone as brightly as Sidney Poitier.
In films like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night,” Poitier turned in powerful performances that electrified audiences. He also broke racial barriers as a leading man and top box office draw in the 1950s and 1960s, and became the first African American male to win an Oscar for best actor for his performance in “Lilies of the Field.” Though best known for his film work in front of the camera, Poitier also became a director making hits such as “Stir Crazy.” On stage, he appeared in the first production of “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Now, Poitier’s legendary life as a performer, director, and activist will be dramatized in a new Broadway play that will be written by Charles Randolph-Wright and directed by Tony Award winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Titled “Sidney,” the show will trace Poitier’s youth on Cat Island in the Bahamas to his rise to become one of the world’s biggest stars. The play is being mounted with the support of the Poitier family, which selected both Randolph-Wright and Santiago-Hudson to write and direct the production. “Sidney” is produced by Ron Gillyard (“Born for This”); Poitier’s daughter, filmmaker Anika Poitier; and Barry Krost. The play is adapted from Poitier’s best-selling autobiography “The Measure of a Man.”
Randolph-Wright is the author of “Blue” and the upcoming “American Prophet: Frederick Douglass In His Own Words.” He is also the director of Roundabout Theatre Company’s critically acclaimed revival of Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind,” which opened on Broadway this fall.
Santiago-Hudson is also on Broadway this season as the author, director and star of “Lackawanna Blues.” He previously directed the Tony-winning Broadway premiere of August Wilson’s “Jitney” and will direct the upcoming Broadway premiere of Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew.”
In a statement, Randoph-Wright said, “The first time I met Sidney Poitier was decades ago when he saw a show I co-wrote and directed in Los Angeles. We went to dinner and I literally could not speak. He said to me, ‘If in any way I have inspired you, you have more than paid me back with what I saw this evening.’ I have held onto those words my entire career. And now to place his astonishing life on stage is the ultimate challenge and the ultimate joy. To have the trust of Mr. Poitier and his family is one of the greatest gifts I have been given – what an honor to get to dramatize the true measure of this monumental man. I look forward to the world discovering the astounding person that is behind one of our most prodigious heroes, a man who continues to inspire.”
Santiago-Hudson added, “Sir Sidney Poitier is clearly one of the greatest actors in the history of cinema. His integrity and standard of excellence set the bar for generations to come. It is an honor to be a part of celebrating the incomparable Sidney Poitier’s monumental career in this play but also the man and his extraordinary life.”
The cast and creative team will be announced at a later date, as will a production timeline.
Charles Randolph-Wright has penned a new play about the life of activist and filmmaker Sidney Poitier.
The play, entitled “Sidney,” is based on Poitier’s autobiography “The Measure of a Man” and is currently in development. Ruben Santiago-Hudson is attached to direct, and producers include Ron Gillyard, Barry Krost and Poitier’s daughter, Anika Poitier.
Randolph-Wright, who recently directed the Broadway production of “Trouble in Mind,” was selected by Poitier’s family to write the play, according to a press release. Santiago-Hudson, also chosen by the family to helm the play, recently appeared in “Lackawanna Blues” on Broadway, and is directing the upcoming Broadway production of Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew.”
Now 94 years old, Poitier was the first Black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1963. He is also a retired diplomat, having served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2007 and simultaneously to UNESCO from 2002 to 2007. Poitier was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1968 and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
August Wilson is well remembered for remarking that Black theater is alive, vibrant, vital and unfunded — that commerce and a common racism had long held American theater hostage to a mediocrity of tastes. On Broadway last Thursday, where Alice Childress’ 1955 play “Trouble in Mind” opened 66 years late, American theater took an overdue, yet well-timed step toward revising what plays ought to be considered classics.
“Trouble in Mind,” starring LaChanze and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, tells of Wiletta Mayer, a Black actress rehearsing a new anti-lynching play with an interracial company, written by a white author and led by a white director (Michael Zegen). Mayer’s discomfort with the play and its rehearsal surfaces a damning portrait of what it means to be Black in American theater.
A hit off-Broadway in 1955, “Trouble in Mind” was slated to become the first play by a Black female author on Broadway, but when Childress refused to tone down its anti-racist rhetoric, producers pulled the plug. Thursday evening, “Trouble in Mind” took its Broadway bow, untouched as Childress intended, for the first time.
“I want Alice to be in the canon, and now I know she will be,” director Randolph-Wright told Variety on opening night. “At first, I didn’t want the play to come now,” he said, noting that he’d been advocating for Roundabout Theatre Company, who mounts the play, to produce her work for decades. “I didn’t want it to be caught up in the moment, to be seen as knee-jerk. But I realized that people are actually listening to it differently. … This play is a love letter and a poison pill.”
Nearly every turn of phrase in “Trouble in Mind,” a breathtaking comedy-drama, falls as prophetic and damning for the small distance we’ve come since it was written. Willetta remarks that show business for actors of color is just a business; “colored folk ain’t in theater.” She tells a young actor to say he was in the last revival of “Porgy and Bess.” No one will know the difference. The play’s director, Al Manners, tells the actors not to think of themselves as Black, but people. And, in the end, as Wiletta rebels against the stereotypical characters he creates, Manners offers that the play is a lie, but the best one they’d get for years.
“If you only knew how many real-life experiences I’ve pulled on to play this role,” LaChanze told Variety after the show on Thursday. “My version of Al Manners is a combination of more than a few directors I’ve worked with. Those experiences are authentic, they’re real, and they’re part of what it means to make theater and be Black in this country.”
That “Trouble in Mind” makes it to Broadway this season is no accident, and it’s not simply a well-timed opportunity for a deserved Black playwright. Childress’ Broadway debut is the legacy of organizations like Black Theatre United, which this year partnered with Roundabout Theatre Company to forge a new canon by staging lesser-known Black plays. BTU was also founded by LaChanze, as well as theater legends like Norm Lewis, Vanessa Williams, Kenny Leon, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Allyson Tucker — all of whom were in the audience at the American Airlines Theatre on Thursday.
“Broadway isn’t coming back. It’s coming forward,” Williams, who’s been a Roundabout board member for eight years, told Variety. “There are no accidents here. … This play is part of an economic, social and artistic movement.”
“I’ve spent many of the past few months in rooms with producers,” she continued, noting BTU’s successful adoption of the New Deal for Broadway, which establishes industry-wide reforms. “And they’re eager for change, not just because they want it, but because they want to be known as a part of it, too.”
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