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Musical of Frederick Douglass’ Life Hits the Stage

Cornelius Smith Jr. (Frederick Douglass) and the cast of American Prophet. Photo by Margot Schulman.

A musical depiction of the life of abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass will be running through Aug. 28 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. 

“American Prophet: Frederick Douglass In His Own Words” follows the life of Douglass, portrayed by Scandal’s Cornelius Smith Jr., from early childhood as a slave in Maryland, to the challenges he faced as an adult fighting for abolition and freedom in America.

The play encapsulates themes of resistance, new beginnings, death and love, coupled with moving musical numbers throughout the production. Director Charles Randolph-Wright worked with composer Marcus Hummon to co-write the musical production, believing that Douglass’ words are “poetic” and “lend themselves to music.”

“A musical allows one to go inside a character, and being able to do that with an icon is exhilarating,” Randolph-Wright said in an interview with the Hilltop. “A most exciting and rewarding aspect of this is that we were able to give voice to Frederick’s first wife Anna, who has been neglected in history, as is too often the case with women in history, especially women of color.”

The play also came as the first professional stage role for recent Howard graduate Zoë Bryant, who acted as part of the play’s ensemble, a partial swing and an understudy.

“I didn’t know how big of an opportunity this was, honestly, until I stepped foot at the stage door. I was like ‘Oh, this is the big leagues, this is a great way to start.’ I did my research on the director, the music and the overall story of Frederick Douglass,” Bryant said.

Bryant shared her excitement for audiences to see “another side” of Douglass. “There is still so much we need to do when it comes to racial injustice in America, but also how much Frederick Douglass contributed to this fight, even back then. There’s so much more to him. I think it’s really cool to see it, coming from a younger standpoint, that everything is really a journey,” Bryant shared. 

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“No one started where you see them, there’s always a starting point. To see Frederick struggle on what side he wants to fight on and how he wants to fight, it’s just really beautiful. I’m so excited for the audience to get to see that,” Bryant added.

Bryant has aspirations of continuing a professional career in the arts, as well as a musical career under the name Baÿbe Blazë

When asked what words of advice he would give to young Howard students, particularly freshman looking to make a career out of the arts, Randolph-Wright said, “Find your voice, and don’t be afraid to let it be heard. Seek out opportunities at Howard and in the city of D.C. to find like minds and souls. It helps to find comrades, and create your artistic family. I still have my chosen family from my freshman year in college too many decades ago. I am especially proud that a recent graduate from Howard is making her debut in our show. Witnessing her finding her voice brings me the ultimate joy.”

Tickets for “American Prophet: Frederick Douglass In His Own Words” can be found on the Arena Stage website, with various discounts available, such as a “Pay Your Age” promotion for guests under 30.

Copy edited by N’dia Webb

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