Frederick Douglass is not dead.
Well, he actually is, dead since 1895. But in “Frederick Douglass... No Turning Back,” a one-act play about the great American abolitionist and orator, actor Kyle Taylor brings Douglass back to life for Piccolo Spoleto.
The Actors’ Theatre of South Carolina production made its “Frederick Douglass” premiere at the Circular Congregational Church Tuesday night.
Directed by Chris Weatherhead, “Frederick Douglass… No Turning Back” offers a journey to the past as Douglass relates the story of his life to a western Ohio congregation in 1872. The church’s Pastor Brewster (executive producer, Clarence Felder) invites Douglass to recount his experiences from an enslaved life to a leader in the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements.
Taylor has previously appeared in productions of “A River Niger” in New York City and Los Angeles, and he played Martin Luther King Jr. in Pure Theatre’s “The Mountaintop” in 2013.
The script, which is a compilation of Douglass’ speeches derived from publications such as “My Bondage and My Freedom,” follows line-by-line themes from Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepard.” Douglass recites a line, and tells a correlating story of his life — a hand-to-hand parry with his slave master, his escape from Baltimore to New York City, the letter he wrote to his slave master offering hospitality as the Lord does at His table in Psalm 23.
Taylor, with sweat and tears streaming down his face, is an orator in his own right. For an hour, he engaged the congregation in Douglass’ emotional turmoil, from his escape to freedom to his defiance of Jim Crow segregation laws on a train.
The cadence in Taylor’s voice, deep and songlike, was heartbreaking and commanding, befitting the story of an American hero known for his mastery of rhetoric. The power of his singing voice in songs like “Steal Away to Jesus,” was sorrowful yet uplifting, and elicited sympathetic “mms” and “ahs” from an enthralled audience.
Douglass was asked repeatedly over the course of his life to tell his story. “It all became mechanical,” he said. “Tell the story. Night after night, tell the story.” Taylor was anything but mechanical. He revived Douglass and made a 200-year-old story relevant again.
Reviewer Chase Ferren is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.