Starting July 15th, Arena Stage presents “American Prophet,” a play about Frederick Douglass’s life as an enslaved person turned abolitionist. Focusing on the first ten years of Douglass’s life after he escaped slavery, the play will cover his first marriage with Anna Murray, and his abolition work with fellow abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown.
“This is the young Frederick,” Kristolyn Lloyd, actress who plays Anna Murray, says of the play. “Like, what did this human look like before his writings were cemented? What was he like before the edits?”
Given the U.S.’s fraught relationship with teaching all sides of American history, many might not know anything about Frederick Douglass but his name. The play will give audience members a glimpse into his life, using a script that contains Douglass’s own language from his speeches and writing.
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, and including songs by award-winning songwriter Marcus Hummon, “American Prophet” puts the spotlight on abolitionists, people who worked to create a better future for Black Americans.
In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, antiracist writer Ibram X. Kendi says, “If we teach kids about slavery, we’re going to teach them that there were white people who enslaved people and there were Black people who were enslaved. And we’re also going to teach them that there were white people and Black people who challenged and fought against slavery.”
There can’t be one without the other, he argues. And “American Prophet” offers audiences a chance to identify with people who were actively against racism.
“There were moments where we’ve all been so moved in rehearsal that we have to stop and acknowledge it,” Lloyd says, in reference to parallels between the play and present times. “[Douglass] was speaking with a lot of forethought, and so much hasn’t changed. I felt even more charged to bring [Anna] to life.”
When Lloyd was brought on to play Anna, she was able to build and mold the part. Not much is known about Murray — we know she aided in Douglass’s escape from slavery, and that they had four children together that she took care of while Douglass became more involved with the abolition movement. But she’s said to have been illiterate and kept in the background, often relegated to a helpmeet only in Douglass’s life history. “American Prophet” pushes against that rendering of her.
“Anna is the representation of the Black progressive woman. The creative team has gone to really wonderful lengths to spotlight and highlighter her,” Lloyd says. “I feel like I’m getting an opportunity to honor an ancestor, while also defining who she is to people, which is a wild feat to take on. I was told in coaching that she is whoever I make her to be.”
Murray was progressive, born free and radical, Lloyd says. These character aspects show up in the show, through the script and the music, historical words reminding people in the present that there is no need to fear the past.
“I had a friend who at one point asked, ‘How are we supposed to get past [slavery] if you keep bringing it up?’” Lloyd says. “And I think that’s a common misconception, that we’re trying to get past slavery. Really, we’re trying to get through slavery.”
Lloyd doesn’t think there’s any reason to bury history, even if it’s ugly. And “American Prophet” unburies some of what’s been hidden, bringing characters to life and Douglass’s words to the forefront to understand where we go from here.
“American Prophet” plays at Arena Stage from July 15 – August 28. You can buy tickets here.
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