For Roger Guenveur Smith, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend is the perfect time to present a program about 19th-century abolitionist and feminist Frederick Douglass.
"The work of Frederick Douglass is the foundation of the work of Dr. King," Smith said Tuesday. "Dr. King found great inspiration in Douglass, I think, as did all people who were so involved in the civil rights movement of the 20th century. Anyone who knew anything about history knew Douglass was the forerunner of civil rights and was the forerunner of women's rights."
Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818 and escaped in 1838 to New York. He became a widely acclaimed orator, writer and newspaper editor, speaking out on behalf of emancipation, civil rights and women's suffrage. His literacy and eloquence stood as a stark counterpoint to the pervasive 19th- century notion that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites.
His 1845 autobiography, Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, was his most famous work and sparked Smith's interest in Douglass.
"It was one of the first serious books I read as a child, and it obviously left an impression on me," he says.
At Occidental College in Los Angeles, Smith was looking for a project to combine his interests in history, biography and performance. He recalled Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain Tonight, a one-man show about the American writer.
So Smith started working on a Douglass piece. He found that his biggest need was editing.
"Even my mother said it was too long," Smith says with a laugh. "When your mother says your piece is too long, you know you need to cut it down."
The project continued to evolve through the 1980s and '90s while Smith appeared in movies. In Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, he created the character of Smiley, who carried around a photograph of King and Malcolm X.
When Smith attended Yale University, he says, he initially planned to study history, but on a lark he auditioned for and was accepted in the drama school.
He says he has since been trying to marry the two interests. In addition to Douglass, he has several other history-based pieces, including A Huey P. Newton Story. The story of the co-founder of the Black Panther Party won Smith an Obie Award, the top honor in off-Broadway theater; it was filmed by Lee and premiered on the Starz network.
In one of his versions of the Douglass story, Smith says, he wore a leather jacket as an homage to Newton after his death in 1989. Unlike Mark Twain Tonight, Smith's Douglass piece, which runs a little more than an hour, does not try to replicate the character literally. Smith presents it in a contemporary fashion.
"I don't think that to play Frederick Douglass, one needs to come out in a suit and put on a wig, et cetera," Smith says. "The point is these voices and these people continue to resonate in effective ways. When the work is presented in a traditional dress-up mode, it serves as a distancing device because we leave the theater thinking, 'Oh, that was interesting what happened way back when,' or 'Wasn't that horrible what happened in that period?'
"I want Frederick Douglass to exist in this moment, in 2012. That's why it's called Frederick Douglass Now."