For Kenneth Morris, sitting in a dark room among hundreds of people, it was a moment of communion with a man he has never met but whose light he carries with him wherever he goes.
Morris is the great-great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist, orator and polymath. On Thursday, he joined a Washington audience that included Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson for the world premiere of American Prophet, a musical fueled by Douglass’ speeches and writings.
Morris was particularly delighted 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, has been overlooked in her writing and sometimes denigrated by historians.
“It’s so beautiful to see my ancestors come to life on stage,” Morris said after the Arena Stage performance ended to a standing ovation. “It’s been a long-standing complaint in my family that Anna has not been given the dignity and respect she deserves in history. There would be no Frederick Douglass without her.”
The 60-year-old, who sat next to his mother, Nettie Washington Douglass, added: “It’s really moving to be able to see my ancestors. Their blood runs through my veins.
American Prophet is the latest marker of a revival of Douglass in popular culture. The story of how he escaped slavery as a young man to become a leading thinker, orator and star – the most photographed man of the 19th century – has been told in an award-winning biography the Pulitzer Prize by David Blight in 2018 and his speeches featured in an HBO documentary film earlier this year.
This suggests that former US President Donald Trump got his times mixed up, but wasn’t entirely wrong when he observed: “Frederick Douglass is an example of someone who has done an incredible job and is more and more recognized, I notice it.”
Now Douglass has 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 debuted 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 “telling your story” (Anna , noting that her husband’s name will be remembered in history, asks, “But is mine? Is mine?”)
But while Hamilton has been criticized in recent years for understating slavery in national origins history, American Prophet brings the issue to the fore. There are flashbacks to Douglass’ early days in slavery when Anna (Kristolyn Lloyd), an Underground Railroad conductor, encourages him to flee. “My children will not have a slave for a father,” she told him. “You are not a slave.”
At one point, Douglass (Cornelius Smith Jr) recites his famous speech: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day which reveals to him, more than all the other days of the year, the gross injustice and the cruelty of which he is the constant victim.
And a call to action from Douglass is turned into a catchy musical number: “It’s not light we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but the 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 reflect on their contribution to justice. “Shake. Shake. Agitate!” he urges.
For Morris, who is president of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, a nonprofit that fights human trafficking and racism, and who worked as a consultant on the production, such a cry is more relevant than ever in the Washington of 2022.
He said: “His words 170 years later still resonate, sadly. There is still a lot of work to do. But we need his voice and we need to be inspired by the great freedom fighters who came before us because we live in a time when the country is as divided as it has long been with racist rhetoric, sexist and xenophobic who is there.
“In the 19th century, they ‘altered’ people of African descent to justify taking away their humanity and treating them inhumanely. They said things like, ‘They’re better off in slavery. Listen to the happy songs they sing. They get the Christian religion.
“When we think of making a group of people ‘another’, I think of things like ‘They’re coming to invade our country, they’re rapists or criminals’, justifying abusing a group of people so that their children can be caged in. History is not only about the past, but also about the present and the future as well.
The sentiments were echoed by Charles Randolph-Wright, the show’s director and co-writer. After Thursday night’s performance, Randolph-Wright took the stage and said, “It’s so important that we find a way to communicate and that’s what we hope with this play, that all of you, each one of you, come out and wave cause that’s what we have to do we have no choice we need the fire like 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 need to find the way it is taught, that they get to know these amazing people. And there are so many who have done this, so many women who have always been ignored in the movement. It is imperative that we see and hear them now.”
Douglass was born in 1818, escaped slavery in 1838, and became a leading abolitionist, conveying the horror of his first-hand experience to the public and touring Britain and Ireland.
American Prophet is set between 1851 and 1865 with flashbacks to his past. It charts Douglass’ complicated interactions with abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, extremist John Brown and President Lincoln, whose assassination on Thursday night prompted an audience member to exclaim, “Oh, shit!”
In a Zoom interview this week, Randolph-Wright, 65, said, “Hamilton just blew the door down on what we could do, especially for young audiences to want to experience the story. I hope we can do the same with this storytelling and I hope people will be hungry for it. We need to understand where we have been to know where we are and where we are going.”
The musical was originally scheduled to be staged in the summer of 2020 but was postponed by the coronavirus pandemic. Randolph-Wright added, “My view of this show is dramatically different now in 2022 than it was in 2020.
“Being in Washington when everything is going on with January 6, with the Supreme Court – we’re rehearsing and trying to come in and do this work and all of this around us is madness. That’s what was happening around Frederick and he dealt with it and tried to figure out what the answer was. The answer changes.
Randolph-Wright, who comes from a long line of civil rights activists, found Douglass’ words both beautiful and prescient. “They’re what he wrote about 170 years ago and we’re still dealing with that, especially what people of color are dealing with every day in this country, what women are dealing with, all of that .
“Those words still resonate so strongly. I’ve had friends come to this show before and they’re like, ‘You wrote them, didn’t you?’ 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 studied Douglass, said the musical format worked: “It was so passionate, it was so earnest, it wasn’t light and whimsical. It didn’t trivialize anything. It ended on this note of ‘we need the fire’ and ‘bustle’. I thought the actors brought this to life and he himself would have been happy with the production.