REVIEW: Even lacking context, great activist’s words resound

Becoming Frederick Douglass/ Walking the dog Theater/Space 360, Hudson

A HANDSOME BLACK MAN steps behind the lectern and begins to speak with perfect diction, rolling out his rich baritone in a formal, carefully crafted manner.

Twenty-tenners are accustomed to it. We have merely to attend a college class or turn on our television sets to find smart, educated blacks doing the business of the nation. We take it for granted.

But, in the mid-nineteenth century, how astonishing, electric, and thrilling it must have been to hear Frederick Douglass tell his story, advocate for abolition of slavery, even make the case for equality for women! He dared castigate Christians for their slave-holding hypocrisy. He dared face white-supremacist contempt, hatred, greed, and willingness to whip his kind to a bloody pulp or string him up by a short rope. He dared display his intellect before ignorant masses convinced that he could not possibly have any.

It is the magnitude of the forces lined up against Frederick Douglass that is missing from this theater piece. It is excellent to hear his words, but unless the drama delivers the emotional reality of their historical context, it is difficult to experience Douglass’ achievement from this evening alone. To do so would probably require dialogue and a larger cast. The audience’s knowing it intellectually is not enough.

That said, one is left with many moving, satisfying moments in “Becoming Frederick Douglass.”

Actor Phil Darius Wallace is well equipped for this role. The size and beauty of his voice, singing as well as speaking, is a huge asset. It can move from the formalities of the lectern to sounds careening all over a hip-hopper’s pitch-spectrum. It can offer “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” à la Fischer-Dieskau or dredge up horror and empathy by putting the same spiritual in the mouth of a desperate, laboring slave.

Director Melania Levitsky has interspersed the words with some of the most beautiful and moving songs from the legacy of spirituals; besides “Swing Low,” there is “Wade in the Water,” “Sometime I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” and “Steal Away.” Along with those, there is tasty piano incidental music and arrangements by John McDowell and vocals by Denise Lock. These recorded segments could be louder in order to match Wallace’s big baritone, but the material is effective.

Levitsky’s general approach is to keep Wallace in direct connection with his audience at all times with bold eye-contact, touch, invitations to share the stage, and even a snatching of a program from some hands in the front row.

When Wallace asked the audience to join hands, however, I thought, “No, please, not the kumba-ya cliché!” Despite my cynicism, eye-moisture accumulated, and I surrendered to the pleasure of the human circle.

Grace Fay celebrated her Walking-the-dog lighting debut with smooth simplicity, and it will be good to see more of her when (one assumes) the company’s regular lighting designer is unavailable.

The performance is short; but the evening’s words offer lots of opportunities to notice how much 19th-century-style ignorance and evil remains with us. Our willingness to defy fact, logic and human brother/sisterhood in order to accumulate wealth or feed our favorite mythology is still around, though it is somewhat less dangerous these days to speak against it — that is, unless you are a publisher of cartoons or a famous novelist or a filmmaker.

Becoming Frederick Douglass runs at Space 360 in Hudson through December 19th. To reserve seats, telephone 800 838-3006 or go on line at www.brownpapertickets.com

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