Arena Stage premieres musical based on Frederick Douglass’s life, ‘American Prophet’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'American Prophet' at Arena Stage (Part 1)

A musical based upon American abolitionist hero Frederick Douglass is getting its world premiere in the nation’s capital. Arena Stage is presenting “American Prophet” now through Aug. 28.

Actor Cornelius Smith Jr., who plays Douglass in the play, spoke to WTOP about the how they approached this historical figure.

“When you think about Frederick Douglass, you think of the elder statesman with the white hair and white beard,” Smith said. “We focus on his earlier life, mid-to-late ’30s, a young man beginning to figure out who he is and beginning his journey … We’re kind of going in order, but bouncing around from different periods and speeches.”

Douglass was born a slave in 1817 in Talbot County, Maryland, before escaping on a train to New York City in 1838. Settling in Massachusetts, he become a world-renowned abolitionist who influenced President Abraham Lincoln and documented his journey in three must-read autobiographies.

He died in D.C. in 1985, but is buried in Rochester, New York, where he spent most of his life.

“It’s crazy to think about and also really interesting to be able to tell his story in a city where he actually lived, where he actually walked the streets,” Smith said. “Frederick Douglass has traveled the world, but Maryland and D.C. … this is home for him. He was probably the first African American to go to the White House and meet with the president.”

Not only does the musical explore the remarkable life of Douglass, but it also explores the largely untold story of his wife, Anna Douglass. Anna was a free Black woman from Baltimore whom he met in 1837, further inspiring him to seek his escape over the following year.

“Anna doesn’t get talked about in the history books,” Smith said. “If there was no Anna, there would be no Frederick … Anna helped him escape … Anna was a seamstress, so she sewed a sailor’s attire for Frederick to disguise himself and get away … She helped with the Underground Railroad, freeing slaves when Frederick was off giving speeches.”

Playing his Anna Douglass on stage is actress Kristolyn Lloyd, previously of Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen.”

“She is very lovely to work with,” Smith said. “I met Kirstolyn years ago, before this production, so it’s been a full-circle moment to come back and join with her.”

“I’ve always wanted to do a musical, this is my first, so I’m really excited and feel really lucky to have such seasoned veterans around me like Kristolyn,” he added.

The musical is brought to life by Director Charles Randolph-Wright, who has previously brought “Born For This: The BeBe Winans Story” to Arena Stage, and “Motown the Musical” to National Theatre. Smith said he has been overwhelmed by the production.

“Listen, we are going there!” he said. “It’s not like a full set where we are in an actual town, there’s not big pieces coming in … We’re going in and out of time. I personally like it when you leave it to the actors to help create the world … The costumes are fire! You’re gonna see the big gowns they wore in that time … People dressed! They got did up!”

Randolph-Wright cowrites the play with Marcus Hummon, the Grammy-winning songwriter of country music hits like Rascal Flatts’ “Bless the Broken Road,” The Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away,” Alabama’s “The Cheap Seats” and Tim McGraw’s “One of These Days.”

“The music is really what grabbed me,” Smith said. “It’s so visceral … Every single song is special …”

“‘What Does Freedom Look Like,’ that’s the song I start the play with … ‘We Need a Fire’ is [his] Fourth of July speech when he says, ‘It is not the light we need, but the fire. It’s not the gentle shower that we need, but thunder. We need the storm.'”

Now, for the rest of time, some of the iconic orator’s speeches will be cemented in song.

“Eighty to 90% of the words I speak are Frederick Douglass’ words,” Smith said. “You’re going to be entertained; you’re going to learn new things that you never knew about Frederick Douglas; you’re going to be moved.”

“So come on out, have a good time, laugh, get your heartstrings pulled, get your mind racing, that’s what theater is about.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'American Prophet' at Arena Stage (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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