On opening night of The Frederick Douglass Project, lightning cracked the sky over the Anacostia River and wind-blown rain snapped the flaps of the stage tent at The Yards Marina. Solas Nua, known for putting on site-specific productions, has chosen the perfect spot to serve up an Irish story in a new light: the stage perches at the end of a pier thrusting into the river, sitting halfway between a view of Frederick Douglass’ Cedar Hill home and the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. Looking over an acting platform with the proportions of a ship deck, the audience was ready to embark on Frederick Douglass’ voyage to Ireland at the peak of the Potato Famine. But as the wind died down and the rain waned, the dramatic power of the production diminished with the retreating storm.
The key problem with this production arises in the first moments of its introduction. Artistic Director Rex Daugherty welcomes the audience to see a world premiere musical. But a musical contains a coherent story, consistent characters with developmental arcs, and a resolution, none of which appear in The Frederick Douglass Project.
This production would more accurately be described as a showcase of educational vignettes thematically connected by slavery. Psalmayene 24’s play, An Eloquent Fugitive Slave Flees to Ireland traces Frederick Douglass’ travels to and in Ireland to give abolitionist lectures and distribute his book. Scenes from his play commingle with discrete monologues from Deirdre Kinahan’s play, Wild Notes. The intent is clear, to marry the plight of enslaved peoples to the oppression of the Irish by the British; but in execution, the stories never seem to naturally flow together.
Which isn’t to say that each individual part does not hold merit. In the first part of the production, a wordless movement piece choreographed by Tiffany Quinn illustrates Frederick Douglass’ escape from slavery to revolutionary with deep feeling. As a bewitching original score directed by Michael Winch plays, the ensemble lashes and binds Douglass with invisible whips and ropes, under which he writhes until channeling his movement into a dance. Through this dance, he regains his power, escapes his oppressors and runs northward to freedom and a literary life, ending his transformation dressed in a beautiful coat and top hat created by Danielle Preston to represent his rise in social class.
A memorable scene occurs on the steamship The Cambria to Ireland, masterfully evoked through Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s scenic design by attaching railings to the edges of the rectangular stage of interlocking box crates. In it, Douglass prepares to strike the irons off the wrists of a New Yorker woman named Susan Cahill—well-acted by Madeline Mooney—who out of curiosity slips her hands into his former slave manacles and becomes trapped. The contrast between Douglass, who believes in women’s equality, and the men on the boat who dismiss Cahill’s protestations that Douglass never hurt her, evokes the need for allyship against many forms of oppression. The scene culminates in a moving moment where Cahill surrenders complete control to Douglass to trust he will free her without injury. Out of this tension, as with many other pivotal moments in Psalmayene 24’s play, a rap emerges. As Douglass, Gary L. Perkins III skillfully and energetically transposes Douglass’ celebrity oration into the most popular contemporary form of poetic self-expression.
The Frederick Douglass Project
closes May 24, 2018
Details and tickets
Music and movement meld beautifully together, such as when the full cast of accomplished singers remixes the Underground Railroad instructional song “Wade in the Water” with an Irish folk song. When the ensemble percussively uses chains to punctuate a monologue from Kinahan’s Kalief—delivered hauntingly by Louis E. Davis—they create a deft auditory connection between a racist present-day criminal justice system and the slave conditions of Douglass’ time. The actor-musicians also connect with the audience by dancing down the aisles, shaking each spectator’s hand while singing “Oh my sister did you come for to help me? / Pray give me your right hand” from the spiritual song “Sweet Canaan’s Happy Land.”
But all of the live music and contemporary choreography in period costumes under variable lighting cannot fix the shortcomings in this production’s texts. Director Raymond O. Caldwell neglects the transitions between each piece, leaving the audience confused as to where each monologue lands in time, where the speaker lives, and how their story connects to the narrative of Frederick Douglass. In one of Kinahan’s monologues, a woman with disabilities named Rita—whom Jenny Donovan inhabits with absorbing physicality—describes being abused, but it takes precious minutes for the audience to decipher her context and how it fits the rest of the production. In another monologue, Kinahan’s Kabite—portrayed by Tiffany Byrd, the most powerful singer of the production—speaks of being forced into the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and Sudan, but her plight seems entirely divorced from the United States or Ireland. A line at the end of the production, in which each monologue actor stands up to say “I am a slave,” feels too little too late to bind the bewildering jumps in country and time.
Both Psalmayene 24 and Kinahan’s plays share a flaw: each of their characters speaks with eloquence, and so diminishes their relatability as real people and erases their distinct personalities. Early in the play, a character interaction establishes that Douglass’ diction surpasses that of lower-class white people, a believable trait considering Douglass’ prolific writing and professions as a teacher and orator. But the people he meets in the play do not manifest enough “real talk” to contrast him. The result is a host of characters who all seem to be constantly preaching, which enervates the message of the play. Furthermore, the production tries a little to hard to be relevant to 2018. It doesn’t make sense why Douglass in 1845 would make such pointed references to a white man as “He is one who declares Black Lives don’t Matter,” or rap lyrics like “Make sure democracy is working before you start twerking,” or call out his own anachronism with exchanges like “What kind of talk is that?” “I call it ‘rap.’ I expect it will take some time to become popular.” Kabite’s monologue holds a similar deficiency. Instead of letting her story stand on its own, Kinahan turns it into a proselytizing moment for refugees with the line “If America turned her back on me, wouldn’t it kill the very dream that made her?”
The next phase of The Frederick Douglass Project is its most fitting. The cast and crew will bring the production for school children to see in a church where Douglass gave an oratory, an excellent use of the plays, since they offer many valuable teaching moments for young audiences. But unfortunately, the production has been misbilled as a musical ready for D.C. at large. I look forward to seeing future iterations of this original commission; as it stands now, this project is not yet complete.
The Frederick Douglass Project by Psalmayene 24 and Deirdre Kinahan . Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell. Featuring Gary L. Perkins III, Madeline Mooney, Daniel Westbrook, Mike Crowley, Louis E. Davis, Jenny Donovan, Tiffany Byrd, and Kevin Collins. Choreography by Tiffany Quinn. Scenic design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson. Lighting design by Marianne Meadows. Costume design by Danielle Preston. Music directed by Michael Winch. Producer/artistic director: Rex Daugherty. Associate producer: Rebecca Wahls. Stage manager: Sophie Barden. Assistant stage manager: Abby Wasserman. Produced by Solas Nua . Reviewed by Kate Colwell.