By Sheila Wickouski

On July 15, Arena Stage will host the world premiere of the musical American Prophet: Frederick Douglass in His Own Words.

Douglass’ own words power soaring new melodies and an original script from Grammy Award-winning songwriter Marcus Hummon and Charles Randolph-Wright, also known for Arena Stage’s Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story and Broadway’s Motown the Musical. 

This new work presents Douglass as a fierce abolitionist and distinguished orator and features interactions with key figures including President Abraham Lincoln, activist John Brown and Douglass’ wife, Anna Murray-Douglass, without whom his escape from slavery would not have been possible.

Filled with electrifying new songs including “What Does Freedom Look Like,” “We Need a Fire” and “A More Perfect Union,” the show celebrates the revolutionary legacy of one of history’s most famous freedom fighters.

Charles Randolph-Wright’s extraordinary career includes previous collaborations with Arena Stage. Ahead of his latest show’s opening, he joined The Southwester for an email interview. 

The Southwester: Frederick Douglass is known as a great orator. Thousands of pages have been written on his life and work, and Douglass himself wrote three books. How did you and your collaborators begin to condense so much in order to create this show of a few hours?

Charles Randolph-Wright: We decided to focus on a ten year period of Douglass’ life, in his 30’s and 40’s, which encompasses a defining part of his extraordinary journey of identity to become our American Prophet. What we also wanted to show was that this journey was not done alone. His wife Anna figures prominently in our new musical, something we have rarely seen portrayed in history.

SW: What were your earliest recollections of discovering Douglass? When did you decide to create this show?

CRW: I am descended from a long line of educators and historians, so I don’t remember a time when I was not aware and in awe of Frederick Douglass. Several years ago, I met the amazing Marcus Hummon, who was working on this concept. I heard his music, and immediately knew I had no choice but to get involved.

SW: Do you think there will be any surprises in what we learn about Douglass from this musical, and did you yourself find surprising facts when you did the research?

CRW: There definitely will be surprises (which of course I will not tell you) but the most continuous surprise for me is that his words still are all too relevant.

SW: Arena Stage also did a production of Trouble in Mind, a play for which your production was nominated for a 2022 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. Can you comment on the relevancy of plays like American Prophet compared to how Black people are presented in television and movies for instance? What is your advice to those who want to be part of telling great stories?

CRW: If we don’t honor and actively present our past, we limit our present and our future. Trouble In Mind remains profoundly relevant in 2022, which is disturbing and depressing, but not surprising. I am honored to have brought Alice Childress to Broadway, which she deserved sixty years ago. Especially now with the movements to eliminate our history, Douglass’ words are even more necessary than ever before. He provides us with a road map to traverse these impossible times.

SW: Any other advice for young people? 

CRW: Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges facing you, don’t give up. Tell your stories. Celebrate your stories, so that we all may celebrate with you.

By Sheila Wickouski

On July 15, Arena Stage will host the world premiere of the musical American Prophet: Frederick Douglass in His Own Words.

Douglass’ own words power soaring new melodies and an original script from Grammy Award-winning songwriter Marcus Hummon and Charles Randolph-Wright, also known for Arena Stage’s Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story and Broadway’s Motown the Musical. 

This new work presents Douglass as a fierce abolitionist and distinguished orator and features interactions with key figures including President Abraham Lincoln, activist John Brown and Douglass’ wife, Anna Murray-Douglass, without whom his escape from slavery would not have been possible.

Filled with electrifying new songs including “What Does Freedom Look Like,” “We Need a Fire” and “A More Perfect Union,” the show celebrates the revolutionary legacy of one of history’s most famous freedom fighters.

Charles Randolph-Wright’s extraordinary career includes previous collaborations with Arena Stage. Ahead of his latest show’s opening, he joined The Southwester for an email interview. 

The Southwester: Frederick Douglass is known as a great orator. Thousands of pages have been written on his life and work, and Douglass himself wrote three books. How did you and your collaborators begin to condense so much in order to create this show of a few hours?

Charles Randolph-Wright: We decided to focus on a ten year period of Douglass’ life, in his 30’s and 40’s, which encompasses a defining part of his extraordinary journey of identity to become our American Prophet. What we also wanted to show was that this journey was not done alone. His wife Anna figures prominently in our new musical, something we have rarely seen portrayed in history.

SW: What were your earliest recollections of discovering Douglass? When did you decide to create this show?

CRW: I am descended from a long line of educators and historians, so I don’t remember a time when I was not aware and in awe of Frederick Douglass. Several years ago, I met the amazing Marcus Hummon, who was working on this concept. I heard his music, and immediately knew I had no choice but to get involved.

SW: Do you think there will be any surprises in what we learn about Douglass from this musical, and did you yourself find surprising facts when you did the research?

CRW: There definitely will be surprises (which of course I will not tell you) but the most continuous surprise for me is that his words still are all too relevant.

SW: Arena Stage also did a production of Trouble in Mind, a play for which your production was nominated for a 2022 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. Can you comment on the relevancy of plays like American Prophet compared to how Black people are presented in television and movies for instance? What is your advice to those who want to be part of telling great stories?

CRW: If we don’t honor and actively present our past, we limit our present and our future. Trouble In Mind remains profoundly relevant in 2022, which is disturbing and depressing, but not surprising. I am honored to have brought Alice Childress to Broadway, which she deserved sixty years ago. Especially now with the movements to eliminate our history, Douglass’ words are even more necessary than ever before. He provides us with a road map to traverse these impossible times.

SW: Any other advice for young people? 

CRW: Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges facing you, don’t give up. Tell your stories. Celebrate your stories, so that we all may celebrate with you.

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