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Interview: Cornelius Smith Jr. on Spending Five Days at Memorial and Becoming an American Prophet

The actor discusses his two very different projects, happening at the same time.

Cornelius Smith Jr. has two big projects in the offing this summer. At Arena Stage in Washington D.C., he has the responsibility of playing abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the new Charles Randolph-Wright/Marcus Hummon musical American Prophet, while on the small screen, via Apple TV Plus, he stars in the upcoming series Five Days at Memorial, playing a hospital physician tasked with tough decisions in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina.

These two projects are happening at the very same time, and on the surface, they couldn't be more different. But when you take pride in your work, and you're fulfilled by the characters you're playing, they're exactly same.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Cornelius Smith Jr.
(image provided by Arena Stage)

Is the experience of preparing for Five Days at Memorial similar or different to preparing for American Prophet? Obviously, the subject matter is different, and one is screen and one is stage.
It's similar in terms of really trying to take the time to prep. On stage, I'm playing Frederick Douglass, who is an iconic figure. There's tons about him out there, and I read his autobiography, but we don't know what he sounded like or how he moved or how he lived in his body. It was easy for me to tap into what's going on with Frederick Douglass, because some of the words I say in the play are very relevant to what's going on in the world today.

It's a project that I'm really proud to be part of, and I'm proud to tell the story. You get the best of both worlds, in that we highlight things that aren't in the history books: we highlight the story of his first wife, Anna, and how she played a pivotal role in him becoming "Frederick Douglass." How she supported him while he was traveling, and taking care of the kids, and everything that she did to really help him become the man we know today. That's been really fascinating. I'm having a ball doing it.

Did you audition, or did Charles Randolph-Wright come to you directly?
I meet Charles years ago when I auditioned for the Motown tour. They wanted me to do the role and I couldn't, but Charles remembered me. A year or two later, he came to me with this project. He sent me the script, he sent me the music by Marcus Hummon, and I heard it and it was so touching. Before the pandemic, we did a presentation at the Apollo Theatre, and then we did more workshopping in DC, and then the pandemic hit and pushed things back. It's been a really beautiful journey and I'm glad Charles thought about me for this role and trusted me with it.

Five Days at Memorial must have been a tough shoot, given the subject matter.
It was interesting. Obviously, the subject matter of what we're dealing with is very heavy, and we did our best to bring some authenticity and truth to it. It was the best of both worlds, though, in that it was heavy content, but we really established a family oriented production. Everybody got along well, and you need that when you're doing something heavy. You need to have a bond outside the heaviness that we're all focused on, so that we can step away and actually become friends.

This is a facet of the Hurricane Katrina story I didn't know about. How much of this were you familiar with?
Honestly, and sadly, I had no idea of the story. When I first got the audition, it was my first introduction to what happened. I might have heard something on the news in passing, but it never got to the point where I was really aware of the specifics of what was going on, particularly at Memorial Hospital. It was a big learning curve to be introduced to everything that happened. Obviously, reading Mrs. Fink's book played a big role in preparing for the role. But I had no idea. I had to educate myself about what happened so that I could bring some authenticity to the role, which was a real person. I had no contact with him, I didn't speak to him, but if you know what you're looking for, there are tons of interviews and information out there on the web, which was useful.

What is it like to promote these two projects at relatively the same time?
It's been great, honestly. I'm just blessed for the opportunities to have done projects that I really believe in and to play characters that I connect to, and tell stories that will touch people's hearts. That's the goal of any storyteller: not only to tell a story, but to inspire something. I would like to inspire love and change, and trigger something so that when you walk away from the story, you have some different thoughts that you're considering that you didn't think about that before. From that lens, it's been really exciting to get out here and be part of work that I'm really proud of, and characters that I'm proud to portray.