Roger Guenveur Smith, whose one-man shows about Rodney King and Huey P. Newton were brought to the big screen by Spike Lee, is bringing his solo show “Frederick Douglass Now" to the stage at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute Feb. 8-10.
No one alive today knows what Frederick Douglass sounded like. When the orator and abolitionist died in 1895, early sound technology was in existence, but there are no existing recordings of his legendary speeches.
“Douglass exists in our imagination,” said Roger Guenveur Smith, the creator and performer of “Frederick Douglass Now,” a solo show on stage at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute Feb. 8-10. Smith sparks the imagination by performing selections of Douglass’ writing, bookended by his own original, poetic riffing.
“I am a fugitive slave. I live underneath the Hollywood Freeway or the Brooklyn Bridge, somewhere under the rainbow,” he begins at a recent version of the show.
If there’s anything that “Frederick Douglass Now” isn’t, it’s a tidy history lesson.
“America continues to happen, and it brings itself to Douglass as Douglass brings himself to our modern America,” Smith said in a recent phone interview. “When he talks about, for example, the draft riots of 1863 in New York City, in which people were rioting in objection not only to the draft for the Union war effort, but also against the viability of black people in New York City — when he talked about that very violent response, I think there’s a certain tragic contemporary resonance.”
Smith is a frequent collaborator with Spike Lee — in “Do the Right Thing,” his stammering Smiley, who professes admiration for Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., is an iconic figure in a film full of them — and Lee has directed film versions of Smith’s previous solo shows about Rodney King and Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton. Smith performed “A Huey P. Newton Story” at On the Boards in 1997 and “Rodney King” at Langston in 2016.
“Frederick Douglass Now” is just getting its Seattle debut, but it’s been with Smith the longest — a “signature work,” he says. Inspired by Hal Holbrook’s long-running “Mark Twain Tonight!” Smith began developing the show as an undergraduate at Occidental College. Douglass left behind a prolific body of work, and the challenge of synthesizing it all was evident.
“The first title of the piece was called ‘An Evening with Frederick Douglass,’ and it was a very long evening,” Smith said, chuckling. “Even my mother felt that it was too long. So you know that if your mom says that you need to edit, you need to edit.”
The editing and evolving continued over the years for Smith. He worked as a research assistant for the Frederick Douglass Papers as a graduate student at Yale, helping refine the piece. He performed the show at New York’s La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club as a multimedia presentation, with Douglass dressed in a black leather jacket a la Huey Newton. A performance last year in Brooklyn featured sets from the Branford Marsalis Quartet, echoing the “jazz musicality” Smith aspires to in his work, he said.
Now, the show runs a “lean and mean hour,” and Smith is performing a few more live shows before production begins on the planned film adaptation, with Lee once again slated to direct.
“Spike is of the mind that he doesn’t want to engage in history simply as nostalgia [or] as an exercise in the past,” Smith said.
Smith could be describing his own show. Douglass’ words about racism and inequality are hardly only applicable to a bygone era.
“We have not resolved what Douglass articulated some 150 years ago,” Smith said. “In a way, he was a prophet. He anticipated that America needed desperately to live up to its revolutionary process.”
As a historical figure, Douglass is fascinating — a former slave who taught himself to read and write, an advocate at President Lincoln’s desk for the rights of black people, a feminist who attended the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. And unlike other better known American giants like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, “he was not a slaveholder,” Smith notes wryly.
But the past is not merely the past in Smith’s show.
“I don’t want people coming to see ‘Frederick Douglass Now’ and leaving the theater saying, ‘Wasn’t it horrible what happened way back then?’ ” Smith said. “We have to be galvanized by the brilliance of Frederick Douglass to do the work that still needs to be done.”
“Frederick Douglass Now,” created and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith. Friday, Feb. 8, through Sunday, Feb. 10; Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, 104 17th Ave. S., Seattle; $25; 800-982-2787, stgpresents.org