The space where historical perspective and current-day attitudes crosshatch benefits "Frederick Douglass Now” at Bootleg Theater. Writer-performer Roger Guenveur Smith has done incisive, socially trenchant work before, but this is something else again.
It’s a property that Smith, an Obie Award-winner for “A Huey P. Newton Story” and recently acclaimed for “Rodney King,” has been working on since his undergraduate days. Emerging without fanfare upstage of designer Kirk Wilson’s simple but effective set of three American flags, a red carpet and a suspiciously lynching-like rope, Smith wastes no time getting down to Douglass' direct-address business.
What he says may initially suggest a screed, yet by recasting the words of the famed runaway slave-turned-abolitionist into a 21st century context, including elements of poetry slam, rap music and revival minister, this short, sharp solo piece makes a striking statement about where America has come and still has to go in terms of race.
Indeed, Smith’s purposeful authorial skill is at its zenith, recalling the glory days of Spalding Gray and Holly Hughes, and his performance technique remains mesmeric. Repeated pin-drop silences alternate with chortles of laughter throughout, due in no small part to Smith’s wide dynamic range and less-is-more attack.
I won’t soon forget the subterranean effect of Douglass’ most trenchant comments, nor the ingenious means by which Harriet Tubman enters the picture at the climax. Most tellingly, Smith avoids editorializing, permitting the uncanny relevance that the merger of 19th century syntax and postmodern styling yields to make his case via our imaginations.
The odd shaky transition could be rethought, but it’s hard to cavil about such potent results. “Frederick Douglass Now” may be a polemic, yet it’s a genuinely entertaining polemic with a lingering point and a personal benchmark for this remarkable artist.
“Frederick Douglass Now,” Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 24. $10 to $15. (213) 389-3856 or www.bootlegtheater.org. Running time: 55 minutes.