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Actor/writer brings 1800s abolitionist Frederick Douglass to modern life at Penumbra Theatre

January 27, 2018 GMT

If 19th-century black freedom champion Frederick Douglass were alive today, would he be a hip-hop star?

He certainly displays a Kendrick-like flow and Drake-like wit, and the ability to throw some shade in Frederick Douglass Now, a 70-minute solo show by playwright/performer Roger Guenveur Smith that kicked off Penumbra Theatres Claude Purdy Festival of solo works.

The Douglass of this piece is not some remote historical figure but someone speaking to us today. Smith, who first presented Douglass while a student at Yale more than two decades ago, is probably best known for his roles in the films of Spike Lee, including the mentally impaired Smiley in Do the Right Thing. But hes also a commanding master of the one-person show, having done incantatory ones on Black Panther leader Huey Newton, reggae icon Bob Marley and Rodney King, the motorist whose beating at the hands of police sparked urban tremors in 1990s Los Angeles.

Dressed in a three-piece suit and wielding a microphone, he performs under a giant American flag that hangs over a white rectangle on a black stage.

Smith is a hypnotic storyteller who knows the power of the whisper. Despite the mic, he doesnt so much declaim as speak to us in confidence, getting us to lean into his cadences as his body bends and twists ever so slightly, like a hose responding to the rush of water.

While Smith wrote the prologue and epilogue that bookend the piece, the bulk of Douglass is drawn from the abolitionists own words, including The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro. The performer captures the abolitionists subtle and cutting wit. In an excerpt from Douglass letter to his former master, the sarcasm is thick.

But Smith weaves in contemporary references, from Bob Marley to Eric Garner (I cant breathe), and even a recording of Marvin Gayes performance of the national anthem. Smith himself sings Douglass words in a number called Civil War, one that recalls Marleys setting of Haile Selassies words to the tune War.

Douglass lands at a moment when theres yet more turmoil in the American soul. But the takeaway from this show is not just that the past is alive and ricocheting through the present. Its that Douglass seems thoroughly up-to-date something Smith demonstrates during a bit when Douglass interrupts a singalong spiritual to take a phone call.

Oh, its Harriet Tubman, everybody, he says, showing us the Underground Railroads heroines black-and-white mug on his phone. While the talk in Douglass is of big themes slavery and freedom theres a place for warmth, levity and deep emotion, too.

rpreston@startribune.com

612-673-4390 Twitter: @rohanpreston