“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” André De Shields thunders as Frederick Douglass, the great 19th century Black orator, writer, social reformer and statesman, in the 45 minute solo show presented live as part of Flushing Town Hall’s Black History Trilogy. (The video below of the livestream is available through March 15, 2021.)
The line about struggle are among the many in the show that come directly from Douglass’ writings, delivered with a stentorian clarity that one imagines accurately reflects the manner of the actual historical figure, and with costumes and lighting that suggest the heft of history.
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
At the beginning of this show, which De Shields devised himself and entitled “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” he appears on stage singing a spiritual, and bound in chains. By the end, he has freed himself of the chains, and sings Lift Every Voice and Sing (the black national anthem.) In-between, he tells stories from Douglass’ enslavement, and of his escape (“I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs”) — stories that the man himself told in his autobiographies and on the lecture circuit.
But De Shields works in his own commentary as well. At one point, he walks in a kind of the kind of insolent shuffle affected by sullen teenagers, and describes it as if they were still laboring under the ball and chain of their enslaved ancestors. Later, he recites the now-familiar names of recent African Americans slain by the police, and repeats a modern refrain (of which Douglass would undoubtedly approve): Black lives matter.