Roger Guenveur Smith in Frederick Douglass Now.
(© Susan Helbock)
Roger Guenveur Smith in Frederick Douglass Now.
(© Susan Helbock)
Roger Guenveur Smith's Frederick Douglass Now, at the Irish Arts Center, begins thrillingly, with an almost Beckettian barrage of words that blurs the lines between the period in which the writer's subject lived and our own. As Smith commandingly delivers this blisteringly furious, and frequently insightful, prologue, he remains affixed to one spot. His head and shoulders bob in rhythm to the words that stream from his mouth. There's something wonderfully hypnotic and provocative about it. We may have elected the country's first African-American president just under a year ago, but as Smith's collage of words makes clear, the dialogue about race in America has not come to an end.

Unfortunately, Smith has given theatergoers his best work first -- and nothing that follows matches the potency of these opening moments, and the work's self-conscious artiness often takes over.

After the prologue, the text for this solo show -- with the exception of the epilogue Smith has penned -- is drawn from Douglass' potent speeches, editorials, and letters. Some of the material is familiar -- such as Douglass' famed open letter to the man who once owned him as a slave -- while some of it is relatively obscure, such as a speech that Douglass gives to a group working to secure equal rights for women.

Smith has distilled the writing to match the staccato lyricism that he uses in the show's first section, and in some cases, these deletions and elisions make the text more contemporary. In others, though, Smith's revisions can completely change tone while reducing Douglass' work to mere anger-filled oratory. For instance, in Douglass' historic speech about the meaning of the Fourth of July, Smith has trimmed the abolitionist's hopeful conclusion.

It's also difficult to understand what Smith hopes to achieve with a sequence in which he hums "The Star-Spangled Banner" and whispers snatches of the song as Marvin Gaye's R&B-infused interpretation of the anthem plays. Similarly, it's never entirely clear why the stage is backed by a 48-star flag, which was used from 1912-1959. Perhaps theatergoers are meant to infer that the persona that Smith has adopted is some sort of pre-Civil Rights era advocate, but then one remains hard-pressed to understand his references to events which occurred after this period.

The production has no credited director and one wonders if an outside eye might have helped to shape and illuminate the work, in addition to assisting Smith refine his performance. He's energetic and passionate throughout, but it's a turn that becomes increasingly one-note as the show progresses, even though Smith employs a variety of accents, which themselves seem like arbitrary choices. Ultimately, theatergoers are left to question his intent, rather than considering how the dialogue about race in this country must continue.