Edmond Chibeau looks at performance and theatre from the avant-garde communication perspective

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Location: Mansfield, Connecticut, United States

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Frederick Douglas: In the Shadow of Slavery

Frederick Douglass -- In the Shadow of Slavery
with Mel Johnson Jr.
by Tom Dugan
Shafer Auditorium,
Willimantic, CT
12 February 2008

Frederick Douglass, living in Glasgow, Scotland receives two letters from home, one from his daughter and from her aunt. The letter from his daughter gives him the good news, she received a one-hundred on her math exam; and the bad news, she hates her sister. After reading us the cute, touching, and humorous letter from his daughter, he reads us the other letter. “She is with the angels; she died last night of Scarlet Fever.”

As Mel Johnson Jr. spoke these lines there was stillness and silence at ECSU’s Shafer Auditorium. The air in the theatre turned to glass. The audience, the actor, and the character Frederick Douglass came together with silent appreciation of all the tragedies that we share as human beings. In that moment we shared the loss of loved ones, the loneliness of separation, the injustice of racial intolerance, and the sense that all of our work is in vain. Emptiness and silence filled Shafer auditorium as it must have filled the room Douglass was in when he read those letters. But we were luckier, we could share the moment, Frederick Douglas was alone. That moment, the longest silence in the two hour play, allowed the audience to share with each other and with all Americans who have fought for justice, the sense of abject solitude when all of the work, all of the progress, and all of the compromise seems to be for naught.

The one person play, Frederick Douglass in the Shadow of Slavery, performed by Mel Johnson and written and directed by Tom Dugan gives us a sense of the history, not only of American slaves, but of people who fight for justice and freedom in any country. Dugan wisely places the play in Haiti in 1891, late in the life of Douglas. The monodrama takes us back through time and across the miles. From the slave South, to Ireland and Scotland, and of course, the island of Hispaniola, Johnson and the playwright Dugan give us humor, history, tragedy, and moral purpose in the course of the two-hour drama. The Arts and Lecture Committee, the ECSU performing Arts Department and the University Hour Committee are to be commended for working together to bring us this important work.