In his extraordinary life, 19th-century African American orator, writer, thinker and activist Frederick Douglass set forth ideas on race, gender quality, personal freedom and the transformative power of literacy that resonate powerfully today.
In a tour de force solo show coming September to the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College, actor/writer Roger Guenveur Smith channels Douglass and mingles his words with original text, slam poetry, music and contemporary performance elements to frame his ideas in the present moment. As the country marks the 200th anniversary of Douglass’s birth, Smith deftly exposes where we stand on the matters of freedom and dignity Douglass articulated. Frederick Douglass Now is presented Thursday, September 27, 7 pm, and Friday, September 28, 8 pm, in The Moore Theater of the Hop.
In the body acclaimed of stage shows he writes and performs, Smith is known for riffing on historical figures, putting African American issues front and center in his work. This was true in his 1997 Obie-winning A Huey P. Newton Story, as well as the more recent Bessie Award-winning Rodney King–both of which have been filmed for television by director Spike Lee (for whose feature films Smith has created a gallery of memorable characters, including the iconic “Smiley” in Lee’s 1989 break-out classic Do the Right Thing).
Smith’s engagement with Douglass, however, goes beyond that. He began work the show as an undergrad at Occidental College and has been performing it for more than 20 years, refining it to incorporate different material culled from Douglass’s trove of written and spoken words as well as also fresh instances from current events that resonate with the issues Douglass raised.
Wrote the Los Angeles Times, “Writer-performer Roger Guenveur Smith has done incisive, socially trenchant work before, but this is something else again. … By recasting the words of the famed runaway slave-turned-abolitionist into a 21st century context, including elements of poetry slam, rap music and revival minister, this short, sharp solo piece makes a striking statement about where America has come and still has to go in terms of race. … Smith’s purposeful authorial skill is at its zenith, recalling the glory days of Spalding Gray and Holly Hughes, and his performance technique remains mesmeric. Repeated pin-drop silences alternate with chortles of laughter throughout, due in no small part to Smith’s wide dynamic range and less-is-more attack.”
Wrote the Hollywood Reporter, “Ostensibly the work is about race, but as the middle class diminishes and people of all colors find themselves further and further from the American dream, Smith and Douglass’ words take on meaning beyond the context of black and white.”
The performances are a Keystone event of The 2018 Black Theatre Summit: Breaking New Ground Where We Stand, which takes place at Dartmouth September 26-29. Hosted by Monica White Ndounou, Dartmouth associate professor of theater, the event is a reconvening and commemoration of August Wilson’s legendary Black Theatre Summit ‘On Golden Pond’, which took place at Dartmouth in 1998 during the famous playwright’s residency as a Montgomery Fellow, visiting artist, and guest lecturer for the College. Twenty years down the road, the 2018 Summit will capitalize on new links between theater, film, television, and related media platforms.
Smith last performed at Dartmouth in 1997 with A Huey P. Newton Story. Also a director and educator, he teaches in Cal Arts School of Theater.