Phil Darius Wallace has brought his remarkable one-man show Self Made Man: The Frederick Douglass Story to Off-Broadway’s ArcLight Theatre. Now in previews, it opens November 24 and runs through December 14, directed evocatively by Melania Levitsky, who co-created the show with Wallace.
The play is named after a phrase in a famous speech by the abolitionist, who pointed out, as Wallace tells us, that no man is truly “self-made”: “That term implies an individual independence of the past and present which can never exist…We have all either begged, borrowed or stolen. We have reaped where others have sown, and that which others have strown, we have gathered.”
The play is the actor-playwright’s effort to prove that very point by depicting Douglass’s own life, with a special focus on his formative years. Using Douglass’s own speeches, letters, and autobiographical writings and his own skill at characterization, Wallace forcefully portrays the mature man of letters. But also, and most effectively of all, using nothing but voice, posture, and perhaps a shawl or a hat, gives us the young child born into slavery; the loving grandmother who served as both mother and father and from whom the boy is torn at a tender age; and various slavemasters, cruel and less so. Perhaps most memorably, he gives us Old Barney, a heroic-pathetic fellow slave Douglass knew in his youth, a devoted servant but also a bit of a layabout whose hellish punishment evokes the nightmare of plantation slavery as effectively, if on a smaller scale, as did the movie 12 Years a Slave, but here without the need for grisly effects.
Rather than gimmicky, Wallace makes these transformations seem organic and true, marshaling his actorly technique firmly in the service of his story, just as Douglass marshaled his words in the service of his cause.
Wallace also gives us the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who at first discouraged Douglass from starting his own crusading newspaper because with his educated language he’d be “too un-slavelike to be convincing.” He presents a dignified but plainspoken Abraham Lincoln (before whom Douglass is uncharacteristically deferential). He whirls us through Douglass’s association with John Brown and his resulting need to flee the country for a time (depicted memorably in Donal O’Kelly’s The Cambria).
Finally, visiting the bedside of a former abusive master now dying, Douglass musters his capacity for forgiveness, and reviews the high and low points of his life by taking a gentle tour through his various character props. An image flashed into my mind of Greta Garbo’s touch-tour of the bedroom furnishings in Queen Christina, a similar sequence telling a story that could hardly be more different.
Self Made Man is an impressive accomplishment well worth seeing. It runs through December 14, 2014. Tickets are available online or by calling 866-811-4111.
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