By Thomas Klingenstein.
Directed by Christopher McElroen.
Produced by the american vicarious.
Playing at Theater Wit, Chicago.
Allies and Radicals Can Be Frustrating.
It’s pretty well-known that people can be relatively open-minded by the standards of their time and place, and still have backwards or bigoted attitudes. It’s also pretty well-known that a lot of abolitionists fit that description, including ones who were considered radicals. What often goes unexamined is that their extremism may be directly related to their underlying bigotry—that is to say, they choose tactics that are unlikely to succeed precisely because they do not truly want to change the status quo. In Thomas Klingenstein’s world premiere play Douglass, about an episode from the life of famed author, orator, and escaped slave Frederick Douglass, Klingenstein explores what he interprets as one such situation his subject encountered in New Bedford, Massachusetts prior to the Civil War. It could be a fascinating episode from the life of one of America’s most dramatic personalities, but unfortunately, the play is mostly static.
Douglass (De’Lon Grant) has fled slavery very recently, and is working in a shipyard for one Mr. Davis (John Lister). Though he is willing to do anything to remain free, Mr. Davis does not want the racial tension Douglass’s presence causes, and quickly lets him go. Douglass’s wife, Anna (Kristin Ellis), has a job which prevents them from getting too desperate, but their lack of funds is a constant barrier to him from setting up his own abolitionist newspaper. His white ally, the Rev. William Lloyd Garrison (Mark Ulrich) has a paper, but he only wants Douglass to deliver lectures, and his patron, Miss West (Carrie Lee Patterson), quite agrees. Their explanation is that, as an escaped slave, Douglass needs to avoid the high profile that would come from writing and just stick to public speaking, which makes absolutely no sense. Another issue is that Garrison decided to celebrate the 4th of July by burning a copy of the Constitution, and he often advocates for northern secession. Douglass isn’t entirely sure he agrees with that, and is certain he does not share the views of another black intellectual, Delany (Kenn E. Head), who advocates colonizing Liberia.
The issues are dire, but unfortunately, not treated in a particularly dramatic way. Since Garrison and Douglass are not honest with each other about their reservations, they just dance around their conflict for two hours, until Garrison melts-down in the last five minutes of the play. Until then, they just keep repeating the same evasions, maintaining a stalemate, and preventing them from really exploring their difference of opinion. Furthermore the play clearly was under-rehearsed at opening, since all the actors repeatedly flubbed lines. That issue may be resolved as the run continues, but it prevented a sense of rising tension at the performance I saw, and made it difficult for the characters to build off of one another. The only relationship which came through clearly was that of Douglass and Davis, who maintain a strange friendship even after Davis fires Douglass because they are able to speak honestly with each other.
Klingesnstein and director Christopher McElroen have a Brechtian concept, which in this case mostly takes the form of slogans being projected onto the walls in modern fonts. Livieu Pasare’s design for the projections is interesting at first, but like the arguments between the characters, becomes repetitive, and like the tweets it’s meant to evoke, never communicates anything deeper than the aphorisms true believers use to pump themselves up. There’s a subplot in which Douglass has an affair with a white Englishwoman, Julia (Saren Nofs Snyder), based on a real-life incident and clearly meant to further illustrate his complicated relationship with his allies. It’s not a bad idea, and there are moments of Douglass that resonate strongly with some obvious contemporary conflicts between unserious or deluded radicals and people who accept progress in increments because they have an actual stake in the outcome. There are also moments when Douglass and Garrison/Delaney debate whether the Constitution is wholly fraudulent or a moral document with some concessions to the circumstances in which it was written which sound like a debate over scripture, and could be worth exploring. But the script and the production both need to be tighter and more energetic, and there needs to be a stronger connection to today’s struggles than simply saying racism exists now that separatism is no longer widely considered as an alternative.
Reviewed July 24, 2016
For more information, see Douglass’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $25; to order, call 773-975-8150 or visit theaterwit.org. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through August 14. Running time is two hours with one intermission.