American Prophet – Frederick Douglass in His Own Words

American Prophet – Frederick Douglass in His Own Words

Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
Jordan Wright
August 1, 2022
Special to The Zebra

Cornelius Smith Jr. as Frederick Douglass (Photo by Margot Schulman)

Who could have imagined Frederick Douglass’s words set to music? Two men did. Director Charles Randolph-Wright (recipient of Arena’s 2022 American Artist Award) who co-wrote the book with lyricist and composer Marcus Hummon believed it could be done and to that end the two men have put forth a sweeping historical musical that will henceforth be a must-see tribute to the great orator’s legacy.

American Prophet – Frederick Douglass in His Own Words draws from Douglass’s powerful speeches and writings the very words that inspired men and women to rise up against slavery and fight for their freedom against the cruel yoke of racism. A former slave who was later manumitted, Frederick became lauded and revered in England and America. Along with the critical support of his beloved wife, Anna, he brought pressure upon the U. S. government to liberate the slaves. Douglass achieved so much notoriety and influence that he was ultimately granted an audience with President Lincoln to whom he presented his non-negotiable demands. Fact: Before freeing the slaves, Lincoln’s original plan was to “send the slaves back to Liberia – to their own native land.”

Cornelius Smith Jr. (Frederick Douglass) and the cast of American Prophet (Photo by Margot Schulman)

Capturing Douglass’s power in song would seem insurmountable, but Hummon gifts us with sweeping orchestration, impassioned ballads filled with the sweet-sounding harmonies of a gospel choir and a few well-known spirituals. The story guides us sequentially through the horrific realities of the American slavery system and up to the Emancipation Proclamation.

Beautifully cast with 23 musical numbers, its message is delivered both emotionally and at times tenderly. Cornelius Smith, Jr. as Douglass gives a commanding performance with his riveting delivery and smooth baritone voice. Kristolyn Lloyd as Douglass’s wife, Anna Murray Douglass, is the perfect complement to Smith with her pitch-perfect voice as melodic and soothing as a lullaby.

Thomas Adrian Simpson (Abraham Lincoln / Garrison) and Cornelius Smith Jr. (Frederick Douglass) (Photo by Margot Schulman)

Other characters who appear throughout his life are Lincoln (Thomas Adrian Simpson) and his wife Mary Todd (Erica Aubrey), John Brown (Chris Roberts), the noted firebrand of the failed Harper’s Ferry raid, and William Lloyd Garrison (also Thomas Adrian Simpson), Douglass’s first publisher and head of the Anti-Slavery Movement. It is entirely possible to envision a wide audience for this important era in our American history.

Randolph-Wright and Hummon worked with the Douglass family who were adamant about recognizing Anna’s not inconsequential contribution to the cause. In Anna’s early solo “Your Star” we are reminded in both words and song how she helped him escape the bonds of slavery. “Frederick’s ability to move to freedom was all her doing. I feel passionate about everything,” Hummon said, “but I feel intensely passionate about the Anna part of the experience.” Both men have expressed the relevancy of Douglass’s words in the face of the country’s recent events.

Kristolyn Lloyd (Anna Murray Douglass), Cornelius Smith Jr. (Frederick Douglass), and the cast of American Prophet(Photo by Margot Schulman)

With Kurt Boehm as Reverend Gore/Edward Covey/Sec. Seward/Ensemble; Cicily Daniels as Betsey Bailey/Elizabeth Keckley/Ensemble; Christopher B. Portley as Demby/Ensemble; Correy West as Bill/Garnett/Dance Captain; Curtis Wiley as Gabe/Ensemble; Kanysha Williams as Sally/Ensemble.

Assistant Director Allyson Tucker; Musical Director/Orchestrations/Conductor Joseph Joubert; beautifully choreographed by Lorna Ventura; Set Design by Dan Moses Schreier; Dramaturgs Jocelyn Clarke and Otis Ramsey-Zoë.

Exclusively in the Ensemble – Carolyn Agan, Zoë Bryant, Christopher Michael Richardson and Brendon Schaefer.

Powerful and inspiring. Highly recommended.

Through August 28th at Arena Stage, 1101 6th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information visit or call the box office at 202 488-3300.

Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can

Arena Stage
Jordan Wright
March 20, 2022
Special to TheZebra.Org

Catch Me If You Can Soars with High Energy and a High-Flying True Story of the Infamous Conman

Christian Thompson (Frank Abagnale, Jr.) and the cast of Catch Me If You Can running March 4 through April 17 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

As it turns out, the real-life story of a precocious chameleon and 17-year-old conman, Frank Abagnale, Jr., makes for one helluva musical directed by Molly Smith with book by Terrence McNally especially with this stunner cast. From the very first number you’re in for the supersonic ride of your life.

The swinging 60’s when Pan Am was at the forefront of the commercial airline industry sets the tone for one of Frank’s big cons – that of an airline pilot. In that pre-politically correct luxury era of flying, flight attendants were called “stewardesses” and was considered the most glamorous job for women – dating the airline’s Clipper pilots was part of the allure. Naturally, Frank plays up his boyish charm to the hilt and the women unwittingly abet him in his quest to pose as one of the pilots.

Rhett Guter (Roger Strong/Agent Branton/Jack Barnes/Player), Nehal Joshi (Carl Hanratty) and Jody Reynard (Agent Dollar/Player) in Catch Me If You Can running March 4 through April 17 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Using an assortment of aliases, Frank, Jr. aka Frank Taylor and later the charismatic Doctor Frank Connors, manages to weasel his way past a team of FBI agents led by Carl Hanratty whose mission is to nail the imposter for $2M in forged checks. Along the way Carl “Here I Am to Save the Day” and Frank form a telephone friendship as Carl becomes the type of father figure Frank never had as Frank Sr. was a swaggering conman and merciless alcoholic with a cheating wife and the law on his tail who schooled his son well in conning the IRS while lying, cheating and stealing with great aplomb.

Choreographer Parker Esse increases the excitement with some of the greatest ever dance sequences on Arena’s Fichandler stage. Costume Designer Alejo Vietti picks up on the period outfitting the dancers in Mondrian mini dresses with Sassoon haircuts and white go-go boots, the men in their crisply-fitted flight uniforms all frenetically doing “The Frug” to the opening number, “Live in Living Color”.

The cast of Catch Me If You Can running March 4 through April 17 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Impressive performances by Christian Thompson (Frank Abagnale, Jr.) who recently starred as Smokey Robinson/Damon Harris in Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud and supported by the incomparably suave Jeff McCarthy as Frank Abagnale, Sr.; Nehal Joshi as Carl Hanratty; Stephanie Pope Lofgren (with a sensuous Eartha Kitt-like voice) as wife Paula Abagnale; and Hayley Podschun as Frank’s love interest, Brenda Strong – all big-time Broadway stars.

The music is spot on with catchy lyrics by Scott Whitman and Composer Marc Shaiman.  You’ve got to love a line in “Butter Outta Cream” that rhymes with scheme, of which there are many. Sixteen numbers lay out the story, which (spoiler alert) has a real romance though it starts out as a story of a lonely teen enchanted by comic superheroes.

Christian Thompson (Frank Abagnale, Jr.) and Jeff McCarthy (Frank Abagnale, Sr.) in Catch Me If You Can running March 4 through April 17 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Terrific choreography designed by Parker Esse ratchets up the energy to include tap shoes that light up in “Don’t Break the Rules” and a bevy of dancers who seem to populate every square inch of the theater in the round. Props by Alessandra Shines and Grace Trudeau are eye-popping as is Alexander Dodge’s clever stage design which is tricked up to both rise from the center with fresh sets and disappear and features two stairways on either side that descend beneath the stage. Actors sometimes break the third wall acknowledging Conductor Laura Bergquist who can be seen by the audience.

Highly recommended! Catch it, now!

The cast includes Alexandra Frohlinger as Carol Strong; Brett-Marco Glauser as Agent Cod; Rhett Guter as Roger Strong/Agent Branton/Jack Barnes; Jody Reynard as Agent Dollar. Lighting Design by Nicole Pearce and Sound Design by Daniel Erdberg.

Through April 17th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit

Change Agent

Change Agent
Arena Stage
Jordan Wright
February 6, 2022

Andrea Abello and Luis Vega in Change Agent at Arena Stage running January 21 – March 6, 2022. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Playwright Craig Lucas’s Change Agent follows John F. Kennedy’s meteoric rise to the presidency from his political evolution and inner circle coterie to his battles with CIA Director Allan Dulles. Along the way we learn of the backstabbing tactics of Washington Post journalist Joseph Alsop and his legendary salons where he peddled his influence amid the powerbrokers. Much of this was well-documented, but the darkest revelations didn’t surface until after Kennedy’s assassination in 1969. Change Agent pulls us back into that turbulent period, touching on the McCarthy HUAC hearings, Allen Dulles’s control of the CIA and J. Edgar Hoover’s influence on policy as a backdrop to Kennedy’s (Luis Vega) rise to power, and it hints broadly of their conspiracy to murder JFK for not adhering to their clandestine operations.

Luis Vega and Andrea Abello in Change Agent at Arena Stage running January 21 – March 6, 2022. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Framed by Kennedy’s strained relationship with Jackie and his rumored affair with socialite and artist Mary Pinchot Meyer (Andrea Abello), the drama captures the diabolical war-mongerers who undermined Kennedy’s desire to lead the country towards a more progressive, anti-racist climate. If you’re familiar with some of these full-blown theories, you know they can lead down a rabbit hole you may not want to travel.

Lucas also acts in the role of Director and some of his decisions make for a slog as the characters’ love lives, affairs and party-going seem less than necessary. As for this as a period piece, others of Arena’s Power Play series have been more focused, more dramatically staged and more indelibly acted as they should be given the weighty political subject matter. If you’ve followed the farrago of conspiracies surrounding the assassination of JFK, this lays it all out with a smidgen of this and a dab of that without once mentioning Jack Ruby or Lee Harvey Oswald.

Andrea Abello and Kathryn Tkel in Change Agent at Arena Stage running January 21 – March 6, 2022. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The story takes us from 1936 to 1965, America – from JFK’s boarding school days meeting the spitfire and liberal activist Mary Meyer (a curious mention is Mary’s studies under famed American artist Kenneth Nolan) to the Kennedy family tragedies, and through WWII into the tony watering holes of Provincetown and Georgetown leading up to Kennedy’s time in the White House. Tension hangs over Mary and Jack’s affair along with her marital difficulties with Cord (Jeffrey Omura) her McCarthy-loving, CIA husband. Mary calls it, “living with what we cannot bear.” In this telling, Jackie appears to condone their affair and she and Mary are the best of pals. Here everyone is deeply flawed, and everyone has a secret agenda. Welcome to Washington!

With Kathryn Tkel as Jackie and Regan Linton as Cicely.

Set Design by Wilson Chin; Costume Design by Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design by Cha See; Original Music and Sound Design by Broken Chord; Projection Design by Caite Hevner.

Through March 6th at Arena Stage in the Kogod Cradle – 1101 6th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information visit

Seven Guitars

Seven Guitars

Arena Stage

By: Jordan Wright

December 14, 2021

Joy Jones and Roderick Lawrence in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars at Arena Stage running November 26 – December 26, 2021. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Dane Figueroa Edidi in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars at Arena Stage running November 26 – December 26, 2021. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Michael Anthony Williams, Roderick Lawrence and Eden Marryshow in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars at Arena Stage running November 26 – December 26, 2021. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Joy Jones and Roz White in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars at Arena Stage running November 26 – December 26, 2021. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

I always feel privileged to enter the imagination of August Wilson – a world of finely drawn characters of the American Black experience. There you’ll find gamblers and street women, hustlers and laborers, dreamers and murderers – all artfully intersecting in a convoluted crescendo of pain and joy. It’s the church ladies and the faithful Wilson knows to rely on to smooth out societal wrinkles – to offer hope in times of soul crushing adversity and mind-numbing oppression.

In Wilson’s world, events occur in lowly places – around a kitchen table, in a backyard, an alley or a gypsy cab station. He finds the ordinariness of daily life and explores it to the fullest. It’s the streets and the common man he knows best, and his canny talent for leaning in gifts us with nuggets of truth amid the everyday chatter. 

In Seven Guitars we sit at a simple wooden kitchen table alongside Floyd and Vera, Louise and Canewell and Red. Advice and cake are given freely yet danger is always around the corner in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where Wilson grew up in the mean streets listening to the rhythm and rhyme of his people. Wilson uses the perils of pride and poverty to tell his compelling stories. Listen closely, as he did.  

It’s the 1940’s and blues singer, Floyd Barton, has scored a hit record and the Savoy Studio wants him back to record another, but he’s broke and won’t leave without Vera, the heartbroken woman he cheated on, who no longer trusts him. “A man that believes in himself, still needs a woman who believes in him,” Floyd tells her. His band members, Red and Canewell, want the assurance they’ll get paid before accompanying him to Chicago. Hedley is the dark horse, an outsider who speaks of mystical powers and dreams of owning his own plantation. Louise holds all the wisdom cards and the sharpest wisecracks. She is played brilliantly by Roz White, whose delivery is so spot on she earns several bursts of instantaneous applause.

Seven Guitars is set in the round which allows for a lot of motion especially for a smallish cast with a fixed set. Frustratingly, given Hedley’s Jamaican accent and that he faced away from where I was sitting for nearly the entire production, I was able to hear only a smattering of his lines. Nevertheless, actor David Emerson Toney’s body language was powerful enough to impart the gist of his words.  

Arena’s ongoing presentations of Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays, a ten-part series that chronicles 100 years of the African American experience, is an admirable commitment to the American canon of the greatest plays ever written and one that we should all support.

A superb cast under the immensely talented direction of Tazewell Thompson. With Roderick Lawrence as Floyd Barton; Joy Jones as Vera; Eden Marryshow as Red Carter; Dane Figueroa Edidi as Ruby; and Michael Anthony Williams as Canewell.  Set Design by Donald Eastman; Costume Design by Harry Nadal; and Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel.

Through December 26, 2021 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information visit  For a safe theater experience, all COVID-19 protocols are strictly adhered to including proof of COVID vaccination and photo ID and masks worn inside the theater throughout the performance. 

Mother Road ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
February 15, 2020 

Mother Road transports us into the world of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath and the terrible tragedy of the Joad family.  Playwright Octavio Solis picks up where the novel left off, leap-frogging the generations to provide us a glimpse into what life would be like for the modern-day Joads.

Cast of Mother Road. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In this telling, the eldest Joad, Will, who witnessed his sharecropper family perish during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, is determined to pass the farm onto his next of kin to keep the farm in the Joad name.  When he discovers his last remaining relative is his cousin Martin, a Chicano migrant worker, Will is forced to face his intolerance towards minorities.  It’s a beautifully told story of personal challenges, dreams, redemption and respect.

(L to R) Mark Murphey (William Joad) and Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Will and Martin meet in Arvin, California, Martin having been tracked down by Will’s attorney, Roger.  Will tells Martin he will give him the Joad farm.  No strings attached.  On their road trip to the farm in Sallislaw, Oklahoma we learn of Amelia, Martin’s love, whom he leaves behind when he is arrested for defending a fellow migrant worker.  As the men drive past rest stops, roadhouses and mile markers, Martin stops to pick up Mo, a salty-mouthed lesbian and fellow day laborer he envisions as forewoman on his soon-to-be inherited farm.  Later they meet Ivy, a pretty waitress who knew the Joads before they left for California, and James, Martin’s African American friend, who has found God in the beauty of nature.  In Martin’s old jalopy the disparate gang swap memories and jokes along the road.  For Will it’s a life-changing epiphany as he comes to understand what it’s like to be black, Chicano or gay in today’s America.

Cast of Mother Road. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The day laborers face all manner of indignities and hardships – disease from chemicals, an uncertain future, the threat of not getting paid for their work, and the fear of arrest and ultimately deportation.  To this day America’s meat, produce and farming industries would not survive without these migrant workers.  More than half of all farm workers in the U. S. are undocumented.  Mother Road shines an unblinking light into their struggles to survive in a harsh and intolerant world.

(L to R) Cedric Lamar (James/Cook), Amy Lizardo (Mo/Chorus), Mark Murphey (William Joad) and Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Terrific performances by the entire cast and special kudos to Amy Lizardo as the outlandish Mo in a razor-sharp performance that brings light and levity to an otherwise serious subject.

(L to R) Kate Mulligan (Ivy/William’s Mother/Police Officer), Amy Lizardo (Mo/Chorus), Mark Murphey (William Joad) and Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Directed by Bill Rauch; Set Design by Christopher Acebo; Costume Design by Carolyn Mazuca; Original Sound and Music by Paul James Prendergast; Dramaturgs Jocelyn Clarke and Tiffany Ana Lopez.

(L to R) Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes) and Natalie Camunas (Amelia/Chorus Leader). Photo by Margot Schulman.

With Tony Sancho as Martin Jodes; Mark Murphey as William Joad; David Anzuelo as Abelardo/Ranch Hand; Natalie Camunas as Amelia; Amy Lizardo as Mo; Ted Deasy as Roger/State Trooper/Ranch Hand/Will’s Father; Derek Garza as Curtis/Abelardo’s Father; Cedric Lamar as James/Cook/Fight Captain; Kate Mulligan as Ivy/Police Officer/William’s Mother.

Through March 8th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit

A Thousand Splendid Suns ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 25, 2020 

Making its DC premiere at Arena Stage under Carey Perloff’s astute direction, A Thousand Splendid Suns brings to life Khaled Hosseini’s poignant and powerful novel of Afghanistan in 1992.  After years of bombings by Russian and Taliban forces, creating a crisis of unimaginable destitution and deprivation, Laila’s family is forced to make a decision – whether to flee to the refugee camps of Pakistan or survive amid the ruins of Kabul.

(L to R) Nikita Tewani (Aziza/Afoon/Girl), Sarah Corey (Ensemble) and Antoine Yared (Tariq/Driver) in A Thousand Splendid Suns running January 17 through March 1, 2020 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In Kabul no one is safe from harm, especially the women, who under Taliban rule must follow the most oppressive laws dictated by the local government, laws that forbid women to go outside without a male relative, to paint their nails, the enforced wearing of burkas, the closing of schools for women, that a woman is the property of her husband, and many more inhumane restrictions.  I’d forgotten that I had read Hosseini’s book until the point in the play of Laila’s enforced imprisonment by the man who had rescued the teenager from the rubble and now was beholden to him as his second wife.  A cruel master to the two women, Rasheed denies Laila, and his first wife, Mariam, any freedoms and the two are treated as indentured servants in his household.  At first Mariam is jealous of this younger, prettier, educated girl, but eventually the women bond over Laila’s baby, and Laila devises a plan for Mariam, herself, and the children to escape to Peshawar.

(L to R) Haysam Kadri (Rasheed), Mirian Katrib (Laila) and Hend Ayoub (Mariam). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Mariam’s own story is another tragic tale that begins to unfold in flashbacks of her youth, when her mother, raped by a man of means who abandons her and their child, sends them off to live a life of deprivation in a mountaintop shack.  Any child who is illegitimate in Afghan society is an outcast and Wakil and his wife cannot accept Mariam in their household.  “Like a compass that always points North, a man’s accusing finger always points to a woman,” her mother warns Mariam whose desire to pursue an education is thwarted by Taliban rule.

(L to R) Mirian Katrib (Laila) and Hend Ayoub (Mariam). Photo by Margot Schulman.

The drama closely follows the book’s plot, that is to say that the violence portrayed in the book is not glossed over, and there are explosive scenes that caused the audience to audibly wince.  On opening night Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was sitting behind Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The Afghan Ambassador was also in the audience.  I couldn’t help wondering how differently each of them would process the most viscerally violent scenes and the raw depiction of male-dominated Afghan society.  Thankfully, in this story, there is some redemption.  A secret love story that plays out alongside the women’s suffering is resolved at the end.

I can’t say enough about how important this play is in bringing to light the horror of daily life under the Taliban.  In some Third World countries this sadistic subjugation of women is still accepted practice.

(L to R) Mirian Katrib (Laila) and Joseph Kamal (Babi/Zaman/Interrogator). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Spellbinding and wondrously acted, it is highly recommended though not suitable for children.

With Hend Ayoub as Mariam; Mirian Katrib as Laila; Haysam Kadri as Rasheed; Antoine Yared as Tariq/Driver; Lanna Joffrey as Fariba/Nana; Joseph Kamal as Babi/Zaman/Interrogator; Jason Kapoor as Wakil; Antoine Yared as Tariq/Driver; Nikita Tewani as Aziza; Ravi Mampara and Justin Xavier Poydras as Zalmai; Sarah Corey, Ensemble; and Yousof Sultani, Ensemble.

(L to R) Mirian Katrib (Laila), Nikita Tewani (Aziza/Afoon/Girl), Hend Ayoub (Mariam) and Ravi Mampara (Zalmai). Photo by Margot Schulman.

By Ursula Rani Sarma; based on the book by Khaled Hosseini; Choreographed by Stephen Buescher; Original Music written and performed by David Coulter; Set Design by Ken MacDonald; Costume Design by Linda Cho; Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel; and Sound Design by Jake Rodriguez.

Through March 1st at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202.488.3300 or visit