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.”