Self Made Man: The Frederick Douglass Story is a dynamically theatrical biographical solo-play created by the inventive director Melania Levitsky and the charismatic actor Phil Darius Wallace, who powerfully performs it.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was an African-American, born into slavery on a Maryland plantation, where he secretly learned to read. At the age of 20, he jumped on a train, and made his way to freedom by escaping to New York City. He later became a preacher, eventually a celebrated orator, and a leading figure of The Abolitionist movement.
The creative script by Mr. Wallace and Ms. Levitsky is adapted from Douglass’ writings with evocative excerpts from the plays of William Shakespeare, and includes appropriate songs and hymns. Focusing on his early years and detailing the horrors of slavery in the United States in the 19th century, it eschews a typical recitation of “greatest hits,” often found in many biographical one-person shows.
With a booming voice, tremendous physicality, and a highly expressive face, Mr. Wallace commandingly portrays Douglass and other figures from his life during the show’s very well paced eighty minutes.
Donning a variety of garments and using props that have been cleverly placed around the stage, he quickly transforms himself into other characters such as Douglass’ grandmother, Douglass as a child, various slave masters, John Brown, and even a white woman by putting on a hoop skirt and holding a fan.
His re-enactment of Douglass’s meeting President Abraham Lincoln while wearing a top hat is very moving. The sound of and his skill of cracking a whip simply conveys the terror of those times.
On the lighter side, he charmingly interacts with the audience by asking them questions, and leaving the stage to shake hands and address them directly. It’s all done totally in character with often comic results.
Ms. Levitsky has staged everything superlatively and imaginatively. She very resourcefully utilizes the entirety of the relatively large stage, giving the show a visually compelling quality. There are numerous arresting looking sequences that enhance the story and the performer.
Technically the show is highly accomplished on all levels and the unison of these elements elevates it immensely.
Angelina Margolis’ scenic design artfully presents symbolism with abstract reality. A large crimson tree dominates the stage in front of the back wall that has been vibrantly painted in a geometric pattern of red, yellow and green. To the side, a platform with a few beams serves as a house and other locales. On the other side is a lectern.
The lighting design of Nastassia Jimenez crisply conveys the different times and places and dramatically places the stage under a red hue during depictions of violence. Sound designer Erik T. Lawson skillfully blends recorded songs along with sound effects.
From Douglass’ voluminous colorful patchwork coat, to the many other clothes that are used, costume designer Katja Andreiev’s work is outstanding.
The dazzling efforts of its collaborators and Phil Darius Wallace’s superb performance make Self Made Man: The Frederick Douglass Story a bold and striking work.
Self Made Man: The Frederick Douglass Story (through December 14th, 2014)
ArcLight Theatre, 152 West 71st Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.Frederickdouglassplay.com
Running time: 80 minute without an intermission