Revolution #181, November 1, 2009
Revolution Books NYC Theater Benefit Evening:
Roger Guenveur Smith's FREDERICK DOUGLASS NOW
"I am a fugitive slave. I live under the Hollywood Freeway and the Brooklyn Bridge… somewhere under the rainbow … kept warm by blazing barrels of trash scraps from the cane fields and the fast food establishments. . . "
When Roger Guenveur Smith takes the stage in his one-man play, Frederick Douglass Now, the first person you meet is this current-day fugitive, a wise and jumpy individual who bears witness to an empire that's been built on the enslavement of a whole people. His stories punch an opening into this unspeakable history…Henry "Box" Brown, the famous slave who mailed himself north in a wooden box (arriving with "the first flat top" because he made the trip mostly upside down)…and its continuing penetration into the present…the pizza parlors in Brooklyn where "20 years after the film Do The Right Thing, they still love Black music but they hate Black people."
Roger Guenveur Smith's Frederick Douglass shows up a little later dictating a letter into his cell phone to one Henry Auld. Douglass was an abolitionist who began life as Auld's slave. He would later escape and become a pre-eminent writer and speaker who woke up millions to confront what it actually meant to live life as a slave on an American plantation. In the theater the audience experiences it up close, as Douglass graphically pictures for Auld how it would be for the slave owner's daughter to exist under the absolute control of another human being—the precise condition of Douglass' own sisters and brother at that very minute.
Most vivid is Douglass' recollection of when he learned that his aunt and uncle had actually escaped. Smith delivers this as a moment of pure joy. It is something you don't see too often on the stage: an authentic sense of human possibility—people consciously breaking inherited shackles they've been told are natural and forever.
For the month of October, Frederick Douglass Now played at the Irish Arts Center's Donaghy Theater in repertory with another play about Douglass, The Cambria, which recounts Douglass' four-month exile to Ireland. On October 21, Roger Guenveur Smith and the Donaghy Theater contributed a portion of the proceeds from the evening's performance to New York City Revolution Books' $100,000 Fund Drive.
That night the filled theater included friends of the store, activists, students, and others. And over the course of the performance you could feel a growing connection with Roger, an actor who in one moment can make you feel the horror of a forced march on foot to a New Orleans slave auction, and in the next the rage at seeing an (unnamed) Oscar Grant shot point-blank on an Oakland train platform.
Nothing arrives as you'd expect in this one-hour tour de force. At one point Smith's Douglass stands at attention for three minutes listening to the Star Spangled Banner sung by Marvin Gaye at a 1983 NBA all-star game. Gaye's warm and frankly sensual version is periodically interrupted by eerily disembodied cheers. The full and chilling irony is slammed home a moment later as Smith swings into Douglass' still-shocking "What to the slave is the Fourth of July?" speech: "To [the slave], your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; ….your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages..."
In an interview with the Amsterdam News, Roger Guenveur Smith said the play is "an attempt to get to the relevance of this man's work to this time." Douglass was the most radical of bourgeois democrats, a critical player in the Civil War, the massive conflagration required to complete the 90-year-delayed bourgeois revolution in the U.S. The goals Douglass fought for have not been (and cannot be) fully achieved in the framework of capitalist/imperialist America. How this will be resolved hangs provocatively in the air throughout the evening, but Douglass' stinging exposure of the barbarity of slavery, and the sickening hypocrisy of those who did not get out of their comfort zone to stop it, have a current relevance, to say the least.
A related paradox runs through the evening. In a country where millions are still hoping against steadily decreasing hope that Obama will be the leader who saves the people, or at least does a few decent things, Roger Guenveur Smith—like Douglass—continues to pose the contradictions that confront the people of the planet, soberly looking at reality and sticking to principle.
In the play's finale, Smith's modern-day rapping commentator returns and serves up another of the painful legacies of the slave-past: the unending slaughter of Black youth by other Black youth on the streets of this barren and heartless land. "Black on Black on Black on Brown on Black…." The character spits out the words as he gives and takes the blows. Then suddenly, "Oh, and don't forget…"—he snaps into an infantryman salute, marching in grim cadence and reciting the long list of countries where soldiers (many Black) have recently been sent to kill and die for American Empire.
As the tempo quickens, Roger Guenveur Smith blurts out the new last line of the play: "Where my peace prize at?"
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Roger Guenveur Smith is well known for his earlier one-man play, A Huey P. Newton Story, which was made into a film by Spike Lee. He also appears frequently on TV and in feature films including Spike's Do The Right Thing and Get On The Bus, and more recently American Gangster.
In the talkback after the play, Roger Guenveur Smith spoke about why he did the benefit for the store: "It's important to support independent bookstores, and Revolution Books is very, VERY independent. It's no amazon-dot-com over there, it's revolution-dot-com…. It is a pleasure to do this evening's performance of Frederick Douglass Now for Revolution Books. And in a certain sense, every performance is for Revolution Books."
Smith introduced Andy Zee from the store who tapped into the play's profound impact: "This is why theater, why history, why art matters. It can make you see the world as it is in new ways and imagine how it could be." Speaking about the store's $100,000 fund drive, he said: "...Revolution Books is more than a store, it's a cause...an essential part of breaking through the suffocating atmosphere...fostering a new spirit and atmosphere of critical thinking, radical discourse and engagement with revolutionary possibility."
He challenged the audience to model what Roger Guenveur Smith had done—to find the ways to spread the campaign, to support the store financially and to contribute with their art, their work, their homes, their time—to keep Revolution Books open and help catapult it further into the public square as an essential center of radical and revolutionary ferment.
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At one point late in the play, Douglass is interrupted by a cell phone call from Harriet Tubman. It is one of several scenes where the agonies of past and present collide to produce an unexpectedly funny moment. Harriet apparently has a lot to say, as does Douglass—comparing notes and news as we all do, only they're talking about underground railroad stops and swimming rivers. As the chatter halts, there's a silence, then "Good-bye, Harriet. We love you so much." It felt like one beating heart in that theater.
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