It’s been a blessed, broken road for Marcus Hummon that led him straight to Arena Stage.
The Grammy-winning Nashville songwriter just cowrote the Frederick Douglass musical “American Prophet,” which runs at the prestigious Arena Stage now through Aug. 28.
WTOP recently spoke with actor Cornelius Smith Jr., so it’s time to follow up with Hummon, who wrote the songs and cowrote the book with Director Charles Randolph-Wright.
“The Episcopal cathedral in Nashville had come to me [saying], ‘We’d like you to create something about the prophetic,” Hummon told WTOP. “At a bookstore, I saw [‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave’]. … I picked up the book and was blown away. I told the dean of the cathedral, ‘Do you mind if I do an American prophet?'”
Thus began his obsession with Douglass, who was born a slave in 1817 in Talbot County, Maryland, before his wife Anna helped him escape to New York City in 1838. Settling in Massachusetts and Rochester, New York, he became a world-renowned abolitionist who influenced President Abraham Lincoln during his visits to D.C., where he died in 1895.
From the outset, Hummon wanted to close the show with the end of the Civil War and the death of Lincoln, saying, “We early on decided that we did not want to do a full biopic because he has another 30-some years of really interesting things to do with his life, but that first 47 years, that’s really the stuff, that’s where the fire is, pardon the reference.”
Indeed, the songbook features the song “We Need a Fire,” timed with Douglass’ Fourth of July speech, where 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.” Other songs include the opening number “What Does Freedom Look Like” and the powerful “Children of the Same River.”
“He [was enslaved] right there in Talbot County, the same basic area that not only Anna but also Harriet Tubman was from,” Hummon said. “There’s something in the water there. They really were children from the same river, rivers flowing into the Chesapeake.”
It’s a full-circle moment to premiere at Arena Stage. “When I found out Arena wanted to do it, I was so excited,” Hummon said. “I’m a D.C. kid, I was born at G.W. Hospital. … To do it a stone’s throw from where Douglass finally lived and passed away is extraordinary.”
After growing up here in the nation’s capital, Hummon moved to Nashville to find success writing country hits like “Ready to Run” and “Cowboy Take Me Away” for The Chicks.
“[Natalie Maines] started playing the mandolin … I was like, ‘I wanna touch the earth, I wanna break it in my hands, I wanna grow something wild and unruly.’ She’s like, ‘I wanna sleep on the hard ground.’ I mean, we practically spoke it to each other,” Hummon said.
In 2006, he won a Grammy Award for Rascal Flatts’ beautiful recording of “Bless the Broken Road,” a song that he had originally written for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1994.
“You don’t actually always love something that people record of yours … [but] when I heard that recording, I was just like, ‘Man, that’s like waiting on a fastball.’ Those guys just killed it, and Gary sang so beautifully, and they didn’t overproduce it, you can hear all of the parts. To this day, it’s just one of those recordings that was sort of a magic recording.”