by Judith Jarosz · November 26, 2014
Phil Darius Wallace | Aaron Fedor
Self-Made Man: The Frederick Douglass Story is a new play written and performed by Phil Darius Wallace, having its world premiere Off-Broadway at the ArcLight Theater in New York City.
The press release states that the show is adapted from the writings, speeches, letters and autobiographies’ of Frederick Douglass, an American legend and the father of our civil rights movement. Frederick Douglass was born a slave and ultimately found his true freedom in forgiveness. Phil Darius Wallace reconstructs the complexity and radiance of Douglass’ spirit on his path to becoming the leader who inspired President Lincoln and countless thousands who thronged to hear him speak -- the rock star of his time.
Wallace does indeed take us on an impressive journey of this amazing survival story in which he plays all of the characters, male and female. As a young child who loved nonfiction (still do) I was a voracious reader who loved stories of real people with amazing courage, who overcame adversity and changed not only their own destiny but the lives of countless others by their actions and example. The life of Fredrick Douglass struck me with amazement and stuck with me over the years. (Other favorites included Helen Keller, Susan B. Anthony & Abraham Lincoln).
And what a story! Wallace takes us from Douglass’s humble beginning as a child of a slave who is raised by his loving Grandmother, until he is ripped out of her life to serve as a child slave elsewhere. We follow his path from child to adult servant. We meet one slave owner’s kind wife, who teaches him to read, before cutting him off after being warned by other “white” folk that she is causing serious trouble by educating a black. We are introduced to other slaves who influenced Douglass with varying ways of getting through their lot in life, some more successfully than others. We also meet a fiercely cruel slave owner, and witness the horrors of random senseless violence. Luckily Douglass, who had a natural charisma and enthusiasm, continued to teach himself and learn enough from others to propel himself forward in society. What follows is an astonishing path that eventually leads him to the White House, where he becomes friend and advisor to President Lincoln. For those who have never read of Douglas life, I will not spoil the twist of fate at the end of this piece, but suffice to say it’s a doozy and helped to complete something in his life, and also this play, on a gracious and uplifting note.
The production moves smoothly along under Melania Levitsky’s solid direction which has Wallace sliding effortlessly from one character to another with wonderful subtle shifts in vocal and physical presentation. A pleasure to watch and hear, Wallace is sincerely connected to his material and has sprinkled the script with quotes from Shakespeare (whose writings Douglass read and admired) which he recites with articulate and resonant relish.
The scenic design by Angelina Margolis uses a colorful one unit set that serves the many different settings well, as does the lighting by Nastassia Jimenez and costumes by Katia Andreiez. And I particularly enjoyed the sound design by Erik T. Lawson and musical composition by John McDowell interspersed throughout.