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Theatre Review (NYC): The Cambria by Donal O’Kelly at the Irish Arts Center

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In 1845, after publishing his life story, Life of an American Slave, Frederick Douglass became a hunted man. He was after all an escaped slave, and many segregationists saw his book as an affront to their lifestyle and beliefs. Douglass boarded an Irish ship, the paddleboat Cambria, out of Boston bound for Ireland. Once he reached Ireland he was greeted like a hero and spoke at public meetings, sharing the stage with Daniel O’Connell, the leading Irish politician of the day. The Irish Arts Center is presenting a play, The Cambria, by Donal O’Kelly, that recounts the trials that Douglass suffered on board ship.

Douglass was forced to move from first class to steerage by a bogus claim that a sick girl needed fresh air. Actually Douglass felt more at ease with “common people” because he was, after all, just a man who had overcome difficulties to become a great statesman. Others on board did not see it that way and he was first forced to deal with passengers who thought he was there to do a minstrel show and demanded he perform it. Douglass also had to contend with a rabid racist on board who got the captain to place Douglass under arrest as an escaped slave. Luckily the captain eventually sided with Douglass.

Despite the fact that the Irish were fully involved in the early stages of the slave trade, they and the English were among the first nations to denounce the trade. In a way this play is a study of the journey from prejudice to acceptance.

The play is performed by two capable actors, the playwright O’Kelly and talented actress Sorcha Fox. I felt that Ms. Fox was the more successful of the two given all the rapid transformation and emotional demands. I think Mr. O’Kelly would have been better off not being in his own play. It was unfortunate that he had to play Douglass among others; he presented Douglass with dignity and seriousness but at the performance I attended the five or six black members of the audience left at intermission. Still this was a worthy effort and a fascinating story. O’Kelly’s script was lyrical and, well, Irish. The Cambria continues at the Irish Arts Center in New York City through Oct. 25.

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