If ever America needed a statesman to rekindle the flame of liberty at home and abroad, now is the time. The appearance of Frederick Douglass onstage to remind us of the intent of all those fine words in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment couldn’t be more welcome. To have Larry Bograd’s epistolary encapsulation of Douglass’ life accompanied by a host of magnificent spirituals and archival images from the Library of Congress transforms the great man’s story into the live equivalent of a Ken Burns documentary.
Tracing Douglass’ journey from slave to fugitive to free man, playwright Bograd mines the writings and speeches of the subject — whose eloquence eclipses his equally illustrious contemporary, Abraham Lincoln — from his early 20s to his death at 77 in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 20, 1895.
As the middle-aged Douglass, Jeffrey Nickelson — artistic director of Shadow Theater Company, Denver’s professional black acting troupe — captures the fiery passion and philosophical brilliance of our country’s foremost advocate for equal rights for all persons, regardless of color, sex, education and financial status.
Looking every inch the young “Lion of Anacostia” (the mature Douglass’ D.C. neighborhood), Nickelson finds the intrinsic cadence of the noted orator’s rhythmic line, manifesting the full power of Douglass’ classic rhetorical persuasion.
Early on, Douglass explains the perfect logic for spirituals accompanying his words: “Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. … I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness.”
In collaboration with Shadow, the Spirituals Project selected nine arrangements from its repertoire, including “God Save the Queen”/”My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “John Brown’s Body”/”The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Go Down, Moses” and “Amazing Grace,” as well as new number “We Look Like Men of War,” to fulfill the musical directions in Bograd’s script. Whether accompanying the 130-plus slides, providing subtext to Douglass’ words or filling a dark hall, the 75-voice, multiethnic choir delivers a nuanced and inspirational performance.
Mixed in with the younger Douglass’ urgent observations are the wizened subtleties of the Sage of Anacostia. Across the stage from Nickelson’s characterization, Hugo Jon Sayles imbues the gray-mantled version with the gravity of a tested and still-robust freedom fighter passing the torch to the children of his success.
While the timeline of the narrative slides — which are interspersed among stunning historic images — occasionally hiccoughs, and the detail in the projected text is occasionally wanting, we are in no way distracted from our hero’s message.