Chicago Theatre Review
History Repeats Itself
Douglass – American vicarious production company
An ambitious, intelligent African American, Frederick Douglass journeyed from runaway slave to became a passionately driven and inspiring speaker and abolitionist. He was determined that, at all costs, he would help his people become free men and women of color. At the age of 12 Frederick secretly learned how to read. This skill enabled Douglass to not only be literate and a knowledgable orator, but an eloquent and forceful writer, as well. He dreamed of, and eventually established, his own abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, the first publication specifically dedicated to his fellow African Americans. As a talented writer and public speaker against slavery and for human rights, Frederick Douglass would go down in history.
This world premiere of New York playwright Thomas Klingenstein’s historical drama is directed by the company’s artistic director and Jeff Award nominee, Christopher McElroen. Despite demonstrating how today’s news is reflective of yesterday’s headlines, especially with regards to racial prejudice and discrimination, this powerful play is simply too long. It would work better, with a few judicious cuts, as a 90-minute one-act. As it now plays, after a needless intermission the story has a difficult time drawing audiences back into its world. The production opens with a bang, peppered with sound and light, as well as a terrific first impression provided by the title character, but, alas, it all peters out in the final moments. The drama lacks the powerful climax that both the audience and this story deserve.
Although McElroen keeps his production admirably simple, focusing our attention on the characters and the tales they tell, it’s often stilted and staged with a lack of imagination, more resembling a staged reading rather than a fleshed out production. However, the director demonstrates finesse with other scenes, focusing on one or two main characters, while positioning his ensemble silently around scenic designer William Boles’ translucent paneled set. (The lip of the stage is strangely charred and splintered on one side, creating a confusing metaphor that’s never utilized or referenced.) This staging, enhanced by Becca Jeffords’ stunning lighting design and Liviu Pasare’s evocative black and white projections, create powerful tableaux and offer silhouettes from Douglass’ world.
The eight-member, mostly Equity cast is excellent. De’Lon Grant is commanding and eloquent as Frederick Douglass. Unafraid to show his character’s softer side, Mr. Grant takes this historical figure out of history books and breathes life into him. He’s vulnerable, but proud and passionate. He cares for others around him and, as such, we care about Douglass. As authoritarian white abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, Mark Ulrich is impressive. Not only does the actor resemble the actual man, he gradually kindles the intensity and vehemence of this character. Although the reveal of Garrison’s true nature comes subtly, Ulrich provides enough insinuated clues that his true colors aren’t a total surprise.
Carrie Lee Patterson is forceful and fluent as Miss West, the authoritative woman whose financial support comes with a hidden agenda. The actress is sophisticated and imposing in a role that could, in lesser hands, become an overplayed stereotype; but Ms. Patterson nicely balances the lady’s compassion with her command. Kristin Ellis is lovely as Douglass’ proud wife, Anna. She plays a young woman who’s supported her husband immeasurably, yet is forced to endure the impudence and not-so-subtle flirtations of Julia Griffiths. Slyly played by Saren Nofs Snyder, this fetching British women of means, whom Douglass met in England, offers the handsome American more than simply financial support for his newspaper.
As a fellow writer with a very different point of view concerning the future of his African American brothers and sisters, Kenn E. Head plays Martin Robison Delany with force and dignity. John Lister creates a stringent and strongly opinionated Mr. Davis, the foreman who removes Douglass from his employment; and Jess Berry portrays Mary, his earnest daughter, who tries to bridge the gap between her father and Frederick. These two Caucasian characters represent the dichotomy of belief and behavior often found among families, both in antebellum America as well as today.
Despite this production’s stark, strikingly dramatic artistic concept, seen especially in Mieka van der Ploeg’s stunning costumes, racial relations are seldom merely black and white. There are many shades of gray in between, and Thomas Klingenstein’s new play portrays some of these viewpoints. Although we learn a great deal about this important African American trailblazer, in many ways this drama isn’t simply an historical, Civil War drama. It’s as contemporary and timely as today’s headlines. However, at two hours in length, the show’s unnecessarily long and takes a while to rekindle its impact following the intermission. Christopher McElroen’s staging, while sometimes inventive, is static and uninspired. Some of his excellent cast, however, need to master their lines, which were shaky on opening night. However, as an entertaining, educational new work, this play illustrates the old maxim that history so often repeats itself.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 22-August 14 by the american vicarious production company at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the theater box office, by calling them at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.