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Thanks to a new musical, Frederick Douglass dances into pop culture

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It begins, aptly enough, with a song about freedom. And Frederick Douglass singing it.

And it is, that Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, writer and polymathic political thinker, who escaped enslavement and became one of the most influential — and photographed — Americans of the 19th century. In the guise of actor Cornelius Smith Jr., he sings in the key of activism in the new musical “American Prophet” that is taking its world-premiere bow at Arena Stage in Washington, the city to which Douglass moved in the latter years of his life, and where he died, at 77 in 1895.

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 I have danced!” declared the musical’s director and co-book writer, Charles Randolph-Wright. “I mean, I met his wife from him at a dance. He was fascinated by everything; he learned violin late in his life from him. He had that mind that did not stop, that inquisitive mind.”

The long-gestating show, postponed by the pandemic shutdown, is one of Arena’s efforts at wrapping vital American history in popular culture — a genre that of course owes its momentum to the juggernaut achievements of “Hamilton.” (It marks its official opening in Arena’s Kreeger Theater on July 28.) Other shows springing up of late, such as the Broadway-bound revival of “1776” cast entirely with women, nonbinary and trans actors, attempt to repot the roots of our national story. “American Prophet” freshly seeds the stage for an understanding of how we have sought, at times, to be a more equitable country.

At a time of angry uproar, theater can still show us the way forward

Arena’s enterprise boasts an estimable pedigree. Hummon and Randolph-Wright, the latter the director of the recent Tony-nominated revival of Alice Childress’s “Trouble in Mind,” opted to adapt Douglass’s voluminous words for about four-fifths of their script. If that were not enough authenticity, they turned to Kenneth B. Morris Jr., a great-great-great maternal grandson of Douglass, for guidance. That led to Morris being made “Douglass family consultant” to the project.

“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 — at 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 seen. There are times when his prayer and his writing by him simply shift in gear and become poetry.

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 from him. “And the first song,” the director added, “went through my body.”

Charles Randolph-Wright: “I dream big. That’s what I do.”

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, at Arena and later 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 of her 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.

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