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A play about Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison dulls two great Americans

Thomas Klingenstein’s Douglass is more diorama than drama.

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In the era of Trump and Cruz and the rest of them it's difficult to call anybody a great American with a straight face. That's what Frederick Douglass was, though. And so was William Lloyd Garrison.

Douglass rose up out of slavery to become a speaker, author, publisher, theorist, and all-around icon, not only in the abolitionist cause but in the struggle for women's equality as well. A white Massachusetts man with a printing press, Garrison was even more of a firebrand than Douglass. He made himself notorious for burning copies of the U.S. Constitution, calling it (and therefore the nation founded on it, which he wanted to dismantle) irredeemably racist.

After Douglass escaped his master in 1838, he started reading Garrison's weekly, The Liberator, with a passion. A loving tribute in one of Douglass's autobiographies starts by saying that the paper "took a place in my heart second only to The Bible." The two men became allies and more than allies—mentor and protege. Garrison talked up Douglass's oratory and published his work; he even violated his own prohibition against ransoming slaves out of slavery (the practice implicitly condoned the peculiar institution, he argued) by endorsing a fund-raising effort to end Douglass's runaway status.

Yet, as Thomas Klingenstein notes in his earnest, disappointing new play Douglass, there came a falling out.

Why? Theories abound. What we know for sure is that the two men got into a disagreement over doctrine, Douglass having concluded that the Constitution wasn't so irredeemable after all. That it could be turned into an abolitionist tool. Everything beyond that is speculation. Did Douglass's own periodical, The North Star (later, Frederick Douglass's Paper), get on Garrison's nerves by cutting into his readership? Maybe, but Garrison also praised The North Star in the pages of The Liberator. Did Garrison become jealous as Douglass's fame outstripped his own, frustrated as his acolyte became his equal—an especially delicate business given the black/white, slave/master dynamics that would inevitably come into play—and stopped taking orders? Seems probable to me.

Klingenstein mentions all of the above. But in the end (and I do mean the end, so here's your spoiler alert), his explanation for the rift between the two men is that Garrison, prodded forcefully enough, turned out to be an old-fashioned bigot himself. In a scene that has no historical basis that I've been able to discover, Garrison goes so far as to call Douglass a "beast."

To which any thinking person would have to respond, "Well, duh."

The problem isn't that Douglass fiddles with the legacy of a fierce, life-long abolitionist agitator--a man who had a price on his head in the south and was once bound with rope, dragged through Boston, and all but lynched by a proslavery mob. The problem is that it treats the idea that Garrison may have harbored racist tendencies as some kind of revelation. Indeed, as the revelation. It isn't. There's a powerful play—a tragedy—to be written about Douglass and Garrison, attempting to be free people in the context of a society whose poisoned air they couldn't help but breathe and share. Douglass misses the chance to be that by making a centerpiece of an insight that should've been among its basic assumptions.

Well, by doing that and a few other things. Presented by the American Vicarious at Theater Wit, the play is more diorama than drama. The long, formal, and dullish first act is all setup, conflicts coming into play only after intermission. And even once those conflicts are engaged, they're treated more as episodic moments than as elements in a coherent narrative. The show falls down especially hard when it comes to Douglass's relationship with Julia Griffiths, a white British abolitionist, who followed him back to the U.S. from one of his European jaunts and worked with him at The North Star. Though willing to acknowledge what Garrison charged outright at the time—that there were adulterous goings-on between Griffith and Douglass—Klingenstein and director Christopher McElroen seem too regardful of Douglass's dignity actually to explore the possibilities onstage. Although Saren Nofs-Snyder makes some valiant noises as Julia, the scene between her and De'Lon Grant's Douglass appears specifically designed to invest the affair with as little passion as possible.

In fact, most of Douglass seems designed for passion-draining purposes. The production reads overall like some dutifully hagiographic educational pageant, for which Grant is all too suitable. Stolid and physically vague, he expresses none of the inner tension, outer strength, or sheer brilliance you might expect from an American Spartacus. Mark Ulrich is more animated as Garrison, but to no better effect. And Kristin E. Ellis is given nothing to do but be pissed off as Douglass's first wife, Anna. The only interesting performance comes from Kenn E. Head, playing black nationalist Martin Delany, who definitely deserves a history play of his own. Delany is the only character permitted a sense of humor, and Head makes fine use of it.  v

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