YOUNG FREDERICK DOUGLASS (Beacon): From slave to American hero, the pen defeats the whip

Warren Johns, Gregory Holmes Jr., and Michael Pliskin in YOUNG FREDERICK DOUGLASS (Photo Credit: Jen Jaynes)
Warren Johns, Gregory Holmes Jr., and Michael Pliskin in YOUNG FREDERICK DOUGLASS (Photo Credit: Jen Jaynes)

In Philadelphia, 22% of adults lack basic literacy skills. Daily news briefs speak to the racialized violence of our society. Discrimination has become institutionalized. Though illiteracy, slavery, and hatred may sound like the problems of our past, they remain unfortunately relevant topics.

In light of our modern-day issues, Beacon Theatre Productionsnewest show, YOUNG FREDERICK DOUGLASS by Walt Vail, sheds light on historical issues that continue to teach a valuable lesson. The play, under the direction of John Mullany, celebrates and honors the life of a great American hero in a way that allows adults and young people to see how much can be accomplished through learning and perseverance.

As the lights dim, a warm, deep voice booms through the theater and draws audience members in. YOUNG FREDERICK DOUGLASSbegins with the stately and eloquent Kamili Feelings as a fully grown Frederick Douglassabolitionist, writer, and oratorour narrator for the next two hours.

He leads us into his early life, when Frederick Douglass was known as Freddy (the gifted Gregory Holmes Jr.), a young slave recently arrived in the house of Hugh Auld (the multi-talented Michael Pliskin). His wife, Sophia (gentle Katie Frazer), and his son, charmingly naïve Tommy Auld (played with great conviction by Damon Zarro), are new to slave ownership and uncomfortable with the role young Freddy plays in their lives.

As Freddy goes on living with the Auld family, he questions his position as a slave, questions how slavery can be maintained generation after generation, and realizes that if he is ever to find a way out, he is going to have to pull himself out of ignorance first, and learn to read. He sets out on this mission, despite great hardships and setbacks, determined to achieve his freedom.

Vails playbased on Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Douglass’s third autobiographyis essentially a story about a lack of humanity. Humanity is both thrust aside by white slave owners who are determined to maintain the order of things and simultaneously taken away from black slaves who are beaten into submission. In the end, this drama is a story of success against all odds.

Damon Zarro and Gregory Holmes Jr.  in YOUNG FREDERICK DOUGLASS (Photo credit: Jen Jaynes)
Damon Zarro and Gregory Holmes Jr. in YOUNG FREDERICK DOUGLASS (Photo credit: Jen Jaynes)

As the life of Frederick Douglass is played out on stage, audience members are drawn into the emotion of the story through the skilled performance of Gregory Holmes Jr., whose body language perfectly captures the role. As Freddy goes from scared and illiterate young slave to a passionate and strong young man fighting for his freedom, the characters very real emotions shine through Holmes’s performance.

Warren Johns does a superb job in four supporting roles, paying careful attention to the nuances of each part. The show also includes a shockingly realistic fight scene, choreographed by Charles Illingworth, and spot-on period costumes by Jen Lanyon, which successfully create a sense of time, setting, and station. The well-made sets, by Chris Serpentine, include a large antique map of Baltimore as backdrop, which feels appropriate and adds greatly to the sense of place.

The show’s scene shifts are distracting, as furniture is pushed around behind the narrator while he speaks, but dramatic lighting during these shifts by Andy Shaw, aids the movement of the storyline. The sound of the dialogue does not always carry well: If you are hard of hearing, it is recommended you sit as near to the stage as possible.

While reading Douglass’s autobiography, Vail felt drawn to Douglassearly life and wanted to shape that story into a play that would appeal to young adults. As Vail had worked as a teacher for many years, the subject of literacy intrigued him. As a human, the perseverance and success of Frederick Douglass inspired him. So YOUNG FREDERICK DOUGLASS is recommended especially for young people, as Vail wrote this play with the express intent of engaging Americas youth with the story of his hero, a man who accomplished so much despite being told time and again that he was nothing. America has not overcome problems with literacy, race, and brutality, but if Douglass was able to accomplish so much in one lifetime, there must be hope.

[Olivet Covenant Presbyterian Church Theatre, 608 N. 22nd St.] April 8-24, 2016;

Note: For each performance on Sunday at 2 PM, adult mentors accompanied by a young person are offered free admittance to Young Frederick Douglass, as a way to encourage children to engage with this story and its message. On Sunday, April 17th, Beacon Theatre Productions invites audience members to stay behind after the 2 PM performance for a talk-back with the cast, dramaturge, and director.

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