Imagine yourself sitting on a creaky ship as a passenger en route to the Emerald Isle of Ireland. Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, is on board with you. The year is 1845. The ship gently rocks while the rains outside come down in torrents from a flash thunderstorm. The stormy atmosphere heightens the dramatic impact of witnessing the great orator, Frederick Douglass himself declare upon arrival, “In Ireland, I am treated as a man. In America, I am less than a man.”
Solas Nua’s newest site-specific production, The Frederick Douglass Project captures the realism of this eventful time in American history with its world premiere of the first-ever theatrical play presented on a floating pier– Washington, DC’s The Yards Marina.
Luckily, a tent shielded us from the actual downpour while an ensemble of some of DC’s best local talent presented a play with music, including dancing, hip-hop, and Irish song in a uniquely fascinating synthesis of African American and Irish history and culture in The Frederick Douglass Project.
Two plays, both directed by Howard University’s own Raymond O. Caldwell, An Eloquent Fugitive Slave Flees to Ireland, by award-winning playwright and director, Psalmayene 24 and Wild Notes, by the internationally recognized Irish playwright Deirdre Kinahan merge to blend the stories of Frederick Douglass’ real-life transatlantic voyage to Ireland. It also creates the fictional account of some of the characters Frederick Douglass encountered when he landed in Cork to give lectures on his first autobiography, during the height of the Irish famine.
Frederick Douglass escaped slavery by running away and freeing himself from America’s brutal economic system of slavery that shipped human life from Africa at the bottom of torturous slave ships to be bartered for economic gain.
The Irish were held hostage to a system that shipped human life as indentured servants to America in “coffin ships” that claimed the lives of many Irishmen. Famine was also the reality for the Irish poor who were viewed by the English as lesser men and women as little more than chattel.
Gary L. Perkins III gives a strong, proudly arrogant performance as Frederick Douglass, interconnecting both ends of the two plays. It might have been helpful to brownout the ending of the first play before beginning the second, for clarity, as there were two different playwrights – an African American male for the first half and an Irish female for the second half.
In An Eloquent Fugitive Slave Flees to Ireland, two good ol’ boys from Georgia are on the ship with Douglass and threaten to throw him overboard when a white female passenger puts on Douglass’ old slave shackles out of curiosity only to find that he doesn’t have the key and she can’t loose herself. The men accuse Douglass of accosting her.
Daniel Westbrook as Roscoe, the uneducated clockmaker, and Kevin Collins as Hazard, an equally ignorant passenger, are convincing in their southern accented hatred for human dignity and freedom.
Madeline Mooney plays Susan Cahill, the woman with the shackles, and later in the second half in Wild Notes, as Margaret Keane, where she plays a young educated Irish woman who resorts to street pandering to survive tough times in Ireland. She befriends Douglass as he tries, much to her bewilderment, to help her comprehend slavery, the “illness of the soul—the contagion that has spread across America” and what it meant to be enslaved.
Her perfectly lilting Irish accent as Margaret was matched by her outstanding portrayal as Susan, the poor American who had feigned illness just to escape the lower passenger rungs on the ship to Ireland.
Equal rights for women, sanctuary for immigrants, racism, sexism and economic inequality were some of the explosive themes in The Frederick Douglass Project as the play interspersed the narrative with rap dialogue for present-moment linkages to current social challenges through hip-hop culture.
A supporting ensemble with Mike Crowley, who doubled as ship captain, and Tiffany Byrd, Jenny Donovan, and Louis E. Davis, who also doubled as characters with their own stories of domestic violence and police brutality, were perfectly cast. They ably added singing, dancing (choreography by Tiffany Quinn), and hip hop with period costumes by Danielle Preston to re-create America and Ireland at a time when Frederick Douglass had become an international leader in the abolitionist movement at home and abroad.
The Frederick Douglass Project is a production that I have not seen the likes of before. To look out upon the Anacostia River from the audience, who sat on both sides of a raised platform stage, and see the night-lit outlines of Frederick Douglass’ home on Cedar Hill and the beauty of the Frederick Douglass bridge in the distance while watching a play sitting on a floating pier gave an immediacy to the importance of Frederick Douglass’ life. The production honored the man as it celebrated deep connections between African American and Irish culture.
There were so many relevant themes in The Frederick Douglass Project that built bridges of goodwill between African Americans and the Irish in this play on a pier to support Solas Nua’s dedication to contemporary Irish arts and its mission to bring the best new Irish talent to American audiences.
Solas Nua (which means “new light” in Irish) has mounted a production that deserves to be seen and supported by all who value the power of theater to bring awareness to movements everywhere that are fighting for social justice and social change.
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.