Becoming Frederick Douglass, conceived and adapted from his own works by Phil Darius Wallace and Melania Levitsky. Directed by Melania Levitsky.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...with tongues long, loud and deep..."
Actor Phil Darius Wallace makes the transition into his character, the historically articulate, learned and politically charged escaped slave who made abolition his cause and education his methodology, without any trouble. He appears before his audience as that man. He mesmerizes that audience with his rhetoric and his style. He preaches a series of Frederick Douglass’ speeches, sings a spiritual or two, attacks the baser image of his people - the burlesqued vaudeville image - and he finally, more than two thirds of the way through this new play being staged at Space 360 in Hudson by Walking the Dog Theater, tells us a few facts about himself, his history, his slavery years, his early education and his life and goals. What he tells us is very important, but he tells us all this far too late.
The impact of this character on the world in which he lived in the 19th century is hard to fathom. He started as nothing and ended as a man people would look up to for generations as someone to emulate, to aspire to. The play, which doesn’t last quite an hour, leaves us without Douglass. It leaves us with only a brief encounter with a man we do not know and won’t be able to meet in another context.
This is really too bad. The material to work with is fabulous. And the actor on stage is a winner. Phil Darius Wallace is original, exciting, dynamic. He possesses a strong fine voice. He is good looking and holds the stage well. He has been directed to use audience members for moments of connection and he pulls this off convincingly with an ease that is surprising. He is the sort of actor that people want to meet, need to touch and so he can pull off such a breach with ease. The only problem is that people are connecting with Wallace and not with Douglass for Douglass doesn’t exist in this play as yet.
His words are there. Yes. But that man is just not delivered to the stage. There is a man and he moves and speaks and does wonderful things but Levitsky’s script doesn’t give us the character. Her work as a director is fine. We have a confined space and she uses it carefully and well. She has imbued her actor/collaborator with gestures, characteristics but these are shallow covers for a script that only gives him speeches. She has not integrated Douglass into the proceedings, only his words.
I think this show has wonderful possibilities and to see it at this stage of its development is fun and quite worthwhile, but I look forward to watching Wallace develop the man who was behind the thoughts we hear in those speeches. Right now we have well chosen words and a fine actor to say them, but there is no play here yet. I hope there will be one day.
Becoming Frederick Douglass plays at Space 360 on Warren Street in Hudson, New York through December 19. For tickets call Walking the Dog Theater at 518-775-1716 or go to their website at www.wtd.org.