By Brenda H. Andrews
New Journal and Guide
Perhaps you have seen Nathan Richardson cast in character as the famous 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass. But if you haven’t, there’s likely another opportunity in your near future.
Richardson of Suffolk is a noted local poet who has performed his own original poetic works at venues throughout Hampton Roads for several years. He is the owner of Spiritual Concepts Publishing. More recently he has begun to character-cast himself as the legendary Frederick Douglass – costume, wig, language and all.
I’ve always enjoyed reading my friend Nathan’s poems which tend to address current events and social issues related to the African-American experience. In fact, I wrote a foreword to his very first collection of poems published back in the 90s. And during last month’s Norfolk NAACP luncheon where I was the keynote speaker, I shared a bit of his poem entitled “We” that speaks to the collective responsibility of African-Americans to redress racial injustice.
Reciting the poem reminded me that this past summer, Nathan and I shared a space at the Virginia Beach Africana vendors’ area down on the beach, where we talked about his Douglass characterization.
Fully understanding Nathan’s assignment has to begin with appreciating Douglass’ role in American history.
Born in the early 1800s, Douglass, who lived until 1895, was one of the most significant figures of the period. He was a social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and a statesman who began life as a slave.
Frederick Douglass was noted for his captivating oratory and biting antislavery writings. A firm believer in the equality of all peoples, Douglass was quoted, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
Portraying a man as great as Frederick Douglass is a lofty undertaking, and Nathan Richardson is up to the task. I caught up with Nathan recently to learn more about where he hopes to take this role.
Publisher: Why Frederick Douglass? What drew you to this great heroic figure as the one you would portray? What most interested you about Douglass?
N.R.: I give full credit for the idea of bringing the portrayal of Frederick Douglass to my good friend Sheila Arnold Jones. I have great respect for her work as a storyteller and her portrayals of historical characters. She is the one who came to me and challenged me to consider portraying a historic character.
I was actually reluctant at first and it took some prodding on her part. Once I accepted the challenge and began looking at all the great men throughout African-American history, Douglass was the obvious choice. Frederick Douglass and I have many things in common both creatively and professionally.
Douglass was a writer, orator, poet, abolitionist and published his own newspaper. I am a poet, author, spoken word performer, youth activist and I work in the newspaper industry.
Publisher: Your Douglass performances seem to be growing. Am I right? When and how did the actual characterization come about?
N.R.: Yes! This is all about growth. I’ve only been on this journey for two years and I have a lot to learn about Douglass. He left a body of work that is relatively unmatched by most African-American men in history.
In order to understand who Douglass was I also have to research and understand his relationships with family friends and colleagues. There is still a mountain of research in front of me.
My performances are structured as follows; a period of 15 or 30 minutes of Frederick Douglass speaking about his life and reciting one or two of these great speeches (What to the American Slave is the 4th of July, The Haiti Speech, Self Made Men or The Church & Prejudice); then 10-15 minutes of questions from the audience in character as Frederick Douglass; followed by 10 minutes of questions from the audience not in character about my portrayal as Douglass.
Many who attended the Africana Festival only got the performance part on stage. Throughout the weekend I was also stationed in a tent on the Virginia Beach boardwalk engaging the public in dialogue as Frederick Douglass.
Publisher: How do you prepare for a performance – both script wise and dress wise? Dressing in costume would have been a tall order for me during the 95 degree plus Africana shows.
N.R.: One of the very fortunate things is that my life’s work in poetry and spoken word has prepared me to take on this role. So has my love of history; so it isn’t like I’m starting from scratch. The same techniques I’ve mastered in memorizing poetry are the same techniques I apply in memorizing Douglass’ great speeches.
Physical appearance is also something I had a head start on. I’ve been wearing a beard for years and I grayed early for my age. Unfortunately I am bald headed and Douglass had a full head of hair. There came the challenge in wrapping my head around the idea of wrapping my ball head in a wig. Shopping for a wig was a totally humbling experience.
19th Century clothing in the summer time is a challenge. Being physically fit helps. It kinda gives me flash-backs of my 22 years in the military wearing Battle Dress Uniform in the summer heat. The three day Africana Festival was a great experience and the weather was beautiful.
Many people asked Mr. Douglass about being hot in the costume. His answer was always the same, “Fellow citizen – compared to picking cotton in the blazing sun, this is a break in the shade!”
Publisher: Is there a Douglass message you seek to convey to your audiences? What is it? Or are there more than one?
N.R.: I believe his message was the example he set. Clearly his actions spoke even louder than his words. He defined the word – Agitate! It is not enough to just know. Being aware is not enough. Knowledge should inspire a person to action.
Publisher: What have you learned about yourself since undertaking this role? Where would you like this role to take you?
N.R.: I’m proud to say this experience has validated the hard work I’ve put into my craft as a writer and performer. My activism with youth gives me more than a superficial understanding of what it means to be an abolitionist, I certainly would not be here had I not sacrificed so much over the past 15-20 years. It’s not a myth. When preparation meets opportunity – great things happen.
With regard to where this role takes me, I don’t normally choose tasks that I can easily claim victory over. I try not to ask myself questions like “Where?” and “When?” I see my entire life as a journey, learning as a life-long process and growth as the major objective.
Publisher: How has your love of writing of poetry factored into this role.
N.R.: A passion for poetry is one of the main things Douglass and I have in common. He actually changed his name based on a poem. He was born – Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. When he married Anne Murray in 1837, he changed his name to Frederick Douglass.
Asking a close friend Nathan Johnson to choose a new last name, Johnson had been reading Sir Walter Scott’s epic narrative poem “The Lady of the Lake,” a literary sensation of the nineteenth century. He picked the name of the leader of the Scottish clan “Douglas,” one of the poem’s key figures. Frederick chose to spell his new last name with a slight difference – a double ‘s’.
With his new wife Anna he thus adopted the new name he would keep for the rest of his life and would make world famous – Frederick Douglass.
I do find his speeches very poetic. He was a master of metaphor and imagery. Reciting his speeches are much like reciting poems.
Publisher: What feelings does Douglass arouse in you? How do you deal with them?
N.R.: Confidence & Self Awareness! I try to transfer all the energy I get from Douglass to my audience. I want them to leave inspired to action.
Publisher: The great poet Maya Angelou said that the caged bird sang for freedom. Does portraying Douglass “free” you in any way?
N.R.: Absolutely! Taking on his persona gives me the freedom to speak in an uninhibited language about slavery and race. The matter of fact nature in the way Douglass spoke about slavery empowered him and the people in his audiences to become abolitionists.
In the same matter of fact way Jews tell the story of their Holocaust, we should be comfortable about speaking about slavery.
Publisher: Can we look forward to other historic portrayals in the future? Any hints on whom and how soon?
N.R.: I’ve had to carve out a major portion of my time to give Frederick Douglass the justice he deserves. But I am still very busy with the work I do with the youth empowerment organization – Teens with a Purpose as well as my own poetry.
A book about my experience in the role of Frederick Douglass would be more practical than taking on another character. Besides – I have some very talented colleagues doing portrayals of Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth and others. It would be a thrill to share the stage with them. That would be exciting!
Publisher: If you were to meet Douglass at the Pearly Gates, what would you say to him.
N.R.: Mr. Douglass, Sir! Thank you!