Frederick Douglass’s Irish ‘transformation’ after escaping slavery

Solas Nua’s Washington production aims to highlight abolitionist leader’s links to Ireland

On the edge of the Anacostia River that flows through Washington DC, a group of actors, directors and musicians are deep in rehearsals, mapping out a scene.

Here on a pier in Navy Yard, the arts group Solas Nua is rehearsing a specially-commissioned production which previews tonight in the US capital.

"The Frederick Douglass Project" tells the story of Frederick Douglass, the slave turned abolitionist who escaped slavery in Maryland to become one of the most powerful voices in the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century.

This year marks the bicentenary of Douglass's birth. To mark the occasion Solas Nua, an American arts company focusing on contemporary Irish drama, has commissioned a piece that celebrates Douglass's connection to Ireland. In 1845, Douglass embarked on a lecture tour of Britain and Ireland, spending four months in Ireland. The episode, which is fictionally portrayed in Colum McCann's novel TransAtlantic, was to have a profound effect on his thinking.

Standing at the edge of the pier with artistic director Rex Daugherty, he points out the house across the river in Anacostia where Douglass lived. To our right, the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge looms large on the horizon.

“This area played an important role in Douglass’s own life. A few streets away is the church where he gave his final sermon, just across the river is his home, so it was important for us to create a site-specific work” explains Daugherty. “Staging the piece on the water is also deeply symbolic, given his experience working in the shipyards in Baltimore and the journey he took across the Atlantic.”

Solas Nua commissioned two playwrights to write pieces for the bicentenary – award-winning African-American playwright Psalmayene 24 from DC, and Dublin-based playwright Deirdre Kinahan.

This is not Solas Nua's first collaboration with Kinahan – the group staged her work in private residences across DC as part of the Easter Rising commemorations in 2016.

Unusual format

The format of the outdoor work, which is directed by Raymond O Caldwell, is unusual. It comprises two short plays – Psalmayene 24's An Eloquent Fugitive Slave Flees to Ireland which deals with Douglass's life before his departure for Ireland and Kinahan's Wild Notes which explores Douglass's time in Ireland. The two works are linked by a transitional passage that transports the cast – and the audience which will be seated on either side of the rectangular alley stage – across the Atlantic.

For Daugherty, the aim of the production is to highlight this critically-important time in Douglass’s life to an American audience. “This is about exploring the parallels of the Irish and African-American experience – Douglass arrived in Ireland during the Famine – but it is also about what happens when two worlds meet and the perceptions and misperceptions that both sides hold.”

Douglass's meeting with Daniel O'Connell spurred the Irish leader to encourage the Irish community in America to support African-Americans

While the show is concerned with a specific chapter in Douglass’s life, it is more than a conventional work of historical fiction. “The Frederick Douglass Project” contains many references to contemporary culture. Kinahan’s play, for example, references several instances of modern oppression – a Ugandan woman who has been forced into sex-trafficking, a woman with mental health difficulties who is exploited at work, and an African-American man incarcerated in the US.

These links between past and present are reflected in the music that weaves through the play which blends contemporary, hip-hop music and dance with traditional Irish motifs.

References to the contemporary struggles still facing African-Americans today, also feature in the raps that Douglass recites in Psalmayene 24’s play.But Daugherty hesitates to call the project political. “It’s more about a social consciousness, a social awareness,” he says.

The work also tackles the complex relationship between Ireland and the anti-slavery movement. Douglass’s hosts in Ireland were mostly Quakers, many of whom were shielded from – and sometimes complicit in – the famine that was gripping the countryside. Similarly, many Irish in America were willing participants in slavery. Douglass’s meeting with Daniel O’Connell spurred the Irish leader to encourage the Irish community in America to support African-Americans in their fight against oppression. But his overtures went largely unheeded by the Irish political and Catholic community in the US, eager to ensure that their own people secured opportunities in their adopted country. The irony is captured in Kinahan’s work. In an interaction between Douglass and an Irish woman about to leave Cork for America, he informs her that the Irish had not always treated his people well. She replies: “Well then they’ve forgotten who they are.”

But ultimately, the work is concerned with exploring this important moment in Douglass’s life and its role in his development as a thinker and activist. As Daugherty says, Douglass’s experience in Ireland widened his understanding of what civil rights could encompass. “Douglass was much more than an anti-slavery voice. He was also a suffragette, for example, an advocate for other oppressed groups.”

Douglass himself captured the impact of his Irish journey in a letter he wrote from Belfast as he was about to leave: “I can truly say I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a transformation. I live a new life.”

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