ECW Weekender: A New Theater Musical Reviewed:American Prophet: Frederick Douglass in His Own Words

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Doug Ullman, Jr.

Despite being one of the most important periods in American History, the Civil War has not yet inspired a truly great Broadway musical. There have been attempts, to be sure, but they have mostly been commercial and/or critical duds. Some, like 1975’s Shenandoah, had respectable runs of two years, while others, like Frank Wildhorn’s creatively titled The Civil War, closed only weeks after opening. Critics have called out musicals about the period for banal lyrics, stilted dialogue, and two-dimensional characters even as they praised individual performers, some of whom have won Tony Awards, the industry’s highest honor. Many have recognized that the mid 19th Century is fertile ground for a musical, but Broadway has yet to produce an enduring hit with the caliber of 1776 or Hamilton.  Surely, this pivotal period in American history is worthy of a durable, resonant representation on the Broadway stage, but when?

American Prophet: Frederick Douglass in His Own Words, the new musical currently playing at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, offers some promise. As the title suggests, the show tells the story of Douglass’s life, using much of his prodigious writing as fodder for dialogue and lyrics. While not specifically about the Civil War, the life of Frederick Douglass offers a perspective on 19th Century America that was sorely lacking in previous attempts to musicalize the period. Furthermore, the war years consumed most of American Prophet’s second act. At the very least, one might expect this piece to wrestle with the great issues at the heart of the conflict in a way previous works had not. The question, however, is whether or not this new musical tells a compelling story from the Civil War era in an entertaining and satisfying way without sacrificing too much historical authenticity.  

From a theatrical standpoint, American Prophet excels in many ways, beginning with its cast. As the title character, Cornelius Smith, Jr. (whose work on All My Children earned him a Daytime Emmy nomination) carries the show with grace and aplomb. In him we see Douglass the man struggling with his place in an America that does not want him. It is a titanic effort in which Smith leaves the stage only a few times during the whole evening. If the purpose of putting historical figures on stage is to help us see them as human and relate to their struggles, then Smith has fulfilled that purpose and then some. He is complimented by an equally strong performance from Broadway veteran Kristolyn Lloyd as Anna Douglass. In her very first scene, Lloyd emphatically shows us that Frederick has met his match and her crystalline voice is one of the highlights of the evening. As a whole, the ensemble delivers excellent performances as various figures in Douglass’s life and sings wonderfully.  

Grammy winner Marcus Hummon, who penned songs for the Dixie Chicks, Wynonna Judd, and Tim McGraw (among others), has crafted a tuneful score which evokes the feeling of 19th Century music. Or, more accurately, it reflects the popular conception of what music from the era should feel like. As one might expect, Douglass’s own words lend themselves well to song and there are some truly inspired moments. The Act One finale, for example, is adapted from the penultimate paragraph of Douglass’s famous “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech. Hummon transforms the words “we need the storm” into the show’s most stirring anthem. And, while not Douglass’s words, the composer provides an equally satisfying musicalization of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address. These moments far overshadow some of the work’s awkward, exposition-heavy dialogue. Buoyed by Hummon’s songs, the piece glides seamlessly through history thanks to the direction of co-writer Charles Randolph-Wright and the choreography of Lorna Ventura.  

Historically, there are some missteps.  The most noteworthy of these is the treatment of Abraham Lincoln. Now, it needs to be said that this is a show about Frederick Douglass and, as such, Douglass’s point of view should take precedence.  If Douglass was skeptical of Lincoln, then the action onstage should reflect that.  However, issues related to chronology and context might give the audience a distorted view of the facts. Mishandling these issues can undermine the show’s integrity and turn history-minded folks away from an otherwise good piece of theater.

Portrayed by veteran actor Thomas Adrian Simpson, Abraham Lincoln makes his first appearance early in the second act.  His first line comes directly from his August 22, 1862, open letter to Horace Greeley: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it…” While it is nice to see that Lincoln’s own words are also being used, this moment is missing important context—namely that this letter was written after Lincoln had drafted the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.  The show goes further by focusing on Lincoln’s interest in sending freedmen to Liberia.  While these facts are not in dispute, it would have been nice to see Lincoln try to explain his views on the matter rather than have him simply reduced to a set of quotes without context.  With Lincoln set up as a natural antagonist to Douglass—something that ought to make any student of history squirm—it is truly baffling when Douglass is suddenly defending Lincoln to other Black leaders. When did this change in attitude occur and how? This could have been teased out more for both authenticity and the sake of the audience. One might wish to watch these two titans do battle over these weighty issues as the show progresses—it might even make a good musical in its own right. But alas, the interactions between Lincoln and the title character in American Prophet are brief and superficial, and such a moment never really materializes.  Ultimately, one may walk away from this thinking less of Lincoln while not really learning more about Douglass.

American Prophet is neither the first nor the last piece of theater to paint a historical figure in a particular light for dramatic effect. It’s part of the game, as is shifting chronology and compressing time and space for more compact, digestible storytelling. But what sets the current offering at Arena Stage apart from other history plays is its own professed emphasis on using primary sources; “in his own words” is in the title. Such an approach allows the authors the opportunity to elevate those words into drama and song, and in many places they do it well.  But with this comes the obligation of ensuring that those words are understood in the way their original authors intended.  In this, American Prophet occasionally misses the mark.  

Is American Prophet the great musical the Civil War deserves? That is for the audience to decide.  With its excellent performances, tuneful score, and elegant staging, it is certainly an enjoyable evening of theater, one that readers of this blog would do well to see.  One thing history and theater have in common: if you wish to understand it, you must engage with it and wrestle with the complex emotions it evokes.  American Prophet gives you the rare opportunity to do both. 

To purchase tickets or view more show information, please visit: https://www.americanprophetthemusical.com/about

Doug Ullman, Jr. has written numerous pieces for America Battlefield Trust and frequently contributed to their Civil War in4 and War Department series. He is a graduate of New York University’s Steinhardt School.

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3 Responses to ECW Weekender: A New Theater Musical Reviewed:American Prophet: Frederick Douglass in His Own Words

  1. Pat Young says:

    While I am not aware of other musicals focused on the Civil War that were successful, Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra is an American classic of the legitimate theater.

  2. mark harnitchek says:

    thanks Doug — a great review about a great American … appreciate your point on context regarding Lincoln … Hamilton has several of the same issues … although historians who critiqued Miranda’s work gave him fairly high marks … thanks again.

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