The American Vicarious theater company is now presenting a World Premiere on stage two of Theater Wit. The play is “Douglass” written by Thomas Klingenstein. This is a multimedia piece exploring race in America as seen by the abolitionists in the days when slavery was becoming history. While the play is inspired by actual facts of that period in history, much of what these characters talk about is parallel to some of what we see in today’s world. This particular story is about an ex-slave , Douglass,( played to perfection by De’Lon Grant), who only wants to be recognized as a man. His desire is to bring the African-American’s a newspaper of their own. It is his feeling that they should be aware of the news of the world and be recognized , not as property, but as people.
His mentor, or so he is made to believe, Garrison (Mark Ulrich) offers to assist him on his journey and with gaining the recognition, but deep down, he is not truly who we are led to believe he is. It is not until the story is almost over that we find out his true motives. In fact, all who purport to be his adversaries, are selfish individuals who feel that the slaves are far less than they are. At one point, in order to gain acceptance of his views, Douglass journeys off to England, a place where color of one’s skin is of no importance. There he meets Julia (Saren Nofs Snyder) who takes him under her wing to assist him and at the same time, finds herself drawn to him. This may be true attraction, or she may be in it just for the challenge. It is hard to see which is her true desire.
Douglass’s wife, Anna (superbly played by Kristin Ellis) has a difficult time with his desires to be other than he is at the time of history, and the other African-American statesman, Delany (deftly handled by Kenn E. Head) may of may not be “on his side”. Directed by Christopher McElroen, this two act play (act one at 50 minutes, act two at 45 minutes, with ten plus minutes in-between) might be better off as a 90 minute, no intermission show. Many people found themselves a bit out of the action as the second act began. At least, from my vantage point, this is what I saw.
The set is a sort of bare stage(William Boles), with a burned corner and steps. I believe this may be a symbol but never heard any reference to it. The incidental music in the production is amazingly done and the sound (Sarah Espinoza) and costumes (Mieka van der Ploeg) along with the lighting (Becca Jeffords) and projections (Liviu Pasare) complete the technical parts. I found the direction a bit stilted as the actors came on stage and walked around as there were no set pieces or furniture. The projections were nice , but again, nothing exciting. The importance of the story line was that the struggles that Douglass had are still evident today. Watch the nightly news, read the daily newspaper (for those of you who still do this) and check out the events happening on the internet- being an African-American in this country is still not as equal as the constitution said. Yes, “slavery” was a terrible thing and the residue it left is still visible in today’s world.
The ensemble of players in this show that fill out the rest of the characters are all able bodied actors; John Lister, Carrie Lee Patterson and Jess Berry. This show might be one where a discussion following the show would make sense. Learning more about the things that happened after the slaves were freed is an important part of history. From other plays and films, we have learned that some states did not recognize the new laws and freed slaves were captured and forced back into slavery despite the change.
“Douglass” will continue at Theater Wit thru August 14th with performances as follows:
Thursdays 8 p.m.
Fridays 8 p.m.
Saturdays 8 p.m.
Sundays 3 p.m.
Tickets are only $25 (open seating) and can be purchased at the box office, 1229 West Belmont Avenue, by calling 773-975-8150 or on- line at www.theaterwit.org
Street parking is available, valet parking as well, and Cooper’s offers free parking in their lot
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Douglass”