The complex life of Frederick Douglass



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The Complex Life of Frederick Douglass Opens Different Doors in Ireland and America
by Frederick B. Hudson

Sometimes the shortest distance between centuries and continents is the synchronized beating of hungered hearts seeking spiritual sustenance.

"[...] Smith’s production of Frederick Douglass Now will run in repertory with another play about the leader hailed by poet Robert Hayden as “superb in love and logic,” for a limited run at the Irish Arts Center from September 23 to October 25. The play, The Cambria, had a prior week long run earlier this year during the week of St. Patrick’s Day. Written by Donal O’Kelly, the play details the difficulty Douglass encountered after he wrote his life story, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1856. The book had a double edge to its blade. It made its author an international celebrity, but it also caused slave owners to make the former slave a wanted man. The slave owner community placed a bounty on Douglass head to discourage other "uppity niggers" from following Douglass’s example and fleeing[...]



Obie-award winning actor and writer Roger Guenveur Smith originally entered Yale University as a scholar in the African-American Studies department. He auditioned for admission in the Yale School of Drama on a whim and was accepted.

But his scholarly fascination with the dark symphony of his African American heritage would not allow him to be content with only acting in others’ dramatic creations. He has mined historical archives and created theatrical monologues of real personages ranging from Black Panther Huey P. Newton to musician Bob Marley to visual artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Smith’s production of Frederick Douglass Now will run in repertory with another play about the leader hailed by poet Robert Hayden as “superb in love and logic,” for a limited run at the Irish Arts Center from September 23 to October 25. The play, The Cambria, had a prior week long run earlier this year during the week of St. Patrick’s Day. Written by Donal O’Kelly, the play details the difficulty Douglass encountered after he wrote his life story, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1856. The book had a double edge to its blade. It made its author an international celebrity, but it also caused slave owners to make the former slave a wanted man. The slave owner community placed a bounty on Douglass head to discourage other "uppity niggers" from following Douglass’s example and fleeing.

When he got word of the movement to capture him, Douglass boarded a paddle steamer boat called The Cambria and fled to Ireland with false identity papers in his pocket. Both plays touch upon the impact of travel as an instrument for growth in the development of a leader. Scholars claim that Douglass’s forced exile to Ireland gave him a sense of the value of his own ideas apart from the abolitionist movement that had spawned his career—a parallel similar to Malcolm X’s trip to Mecca, which helped him forge a vista apart from the Nation of Islam’s separatist views.



The speeches, letters and editorials of the pioneering abolitionist and feminist are bookended by Smith with original narratives, fusing Douglass' era with our own. Douglass’ Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, one of Smith’s sources presents Douglass’ desire to present himself as the perpetual American traveler, attempting to reconcile his very physical presence which had European features mixed with African heritage.

He constantly argued for the importance of transcending race, of thinking about the oneness of humanity. He warned in a 1889 to an African American audience that racial chauvinism gave “the enemy a stick to break our own heads.”

These two plays can be accessed by calling SmartTix at 212-868-4444 or pointing your internet browser to www.smarttix.com. For more information, visit www.irishartscenter.org

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