Playwright: Thomas Klingenstein. At: The American Vicarious at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150; TheaterWit.org; $25. Runs through: Aug. 14
A theatrical tribute to Frederick Douglass is appropriate as his bicentennial nears ( probably born 1818 ). This remarkable American, born a slave, became an internationally revered advocate for freedom and justice and a charismatic writer and speaker. He counseled Abraham Lincoln and several other presidents and died in 1895, so his post-Civil War careerchampioning universal suffrage, education, racial equalitywas longer than his pre-War abolitionist work.
Regrettably, you'll learn little about Douglass' vivid life in this world premiere, in which the focus is narrow and expository information is scant. However, the play does suggest the passion and quality of his thought and speech, as a good portion of the dialog sounds as if drawn from his writings. The language of oratory and publication does not necessarily make good theatrical speech, but it works well enough here. Still, you'll have to Google Douglass to remind yourself of the full extent of his life and career.
Presented on a handsome platform stage bordered above by 19th-century-style Italianate crown molding ( William Boles, scenic design ), Douglass opens with the man himself ( De'Lon Grant ) narrating his uncertain birth information and escape from slavery. He doesn't tell us when he escaped or how his wife-to-be, a free woman of color, helped him or how he overcame illiteracy. Settling in Massachusetts, Douglass was mentored by William Lloyd Garrison ( Mark Ulrich ), arguably the best-known and most important abolitionist of the day.
The play focuses on Douglass and Garrison and their bitter split over the United States Constitution, which Garrison saw as a pro-slavery document and Douglass, eventually, as open to anti-slavery interpretation. It makes the case, too, that Garrison was jealous of Douglass's rising fame and influence, which probably was true. The split became personal and was not mended until the late 1870s, but it was a fact by 1855 and that's as far as the play goes, although without specific date references.
The play is sketchy about Douglass's private life and personal development, but makes abundantly clear his consistent rejection of Black separatism and back-to-Africa colonization schemes. Douglass was vigorously American and a proponent of integration and equal justice, points which are especially pertinent during an election season shaded by Blacks Lives Matter.
There are handsome projections ( by Liviu Pasare ) of written/printed texts which the audience cannot always relate to the onstage actions. Mieka van de Ploeg's costumes pleasingly suggest mid-19th Century with elegant touches. Christopher McElroen's staging is clean and efficient, making use of virtually no furniture or props, so actors enter, stand and deliver in mostly two-person scenes, then exit. The play ends abruptly without completing Douglass' story. Folks will understand some of his ideas, but not why he is so important in U.S. history.