By Daniel J. Kushner
Two hundred years have passed since trailblazing abolitionist and famous Rochesterian Frederick Douglass was born. And while his bicentennial is cause for celebration, it’s also a sobering reminder: It’s 2018 and mass incarceration of African Americans and police brutality are still national maladies; civil rights advocates from Black Lives Matter to professional athletes are still maligned and marginalized for protesting peacefully; the Southern strategy and other forms of voter suppression are still actively utilized; the debate over the appropriateness of Confederate monuments still rages across states and social media alike. In a modern era that at times seems to eerily echo Jim Crow, the legacy of Frederick Douglass is critically relevant.
Enter the North Star Players and stage director David A. Shakes, whose multidisciplinary theatrical presentation “No Struggle, No Progress” — running from January 16 through January 20 at the MuCCC — honors Douglass and his enduring message of liberation and equality through music, dance, images, and of course the words of Douglass himself. The North Star Players will be joined by notable collaborators: Trumpeter Herb Smith of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Thomas Warfield, dancer and professor at National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Douglass scholars will also contribute. CITY connected with Shakes via email to ask him about Douglass’s enduring impact and the approach of “No Struggle, No Progress” in presenting his story. An edited version of the interview follows.
CITY: How does the story of Frederick Douglass necessitate a multimedia exposition?
David A. Shakes: “No Struggle, No Progress” pays tribute to Frederick Douglass through the of mediums of dance, music, song, oratory, and poetry to give presence and voice to ways people of color interpret, understand, and express the value of his life and legacy. It is a holistic literacy of African American people in the diaspora. Multimedia makes his message accessible to today’s audiences, especially young people. Frederick Douglass used writing, orality, photography, and his personal travels as his mediums of his day, to be explored and used to advance his messages and worldview.
How do the guest performances from Thomas Warfield and Herb Smith enhance the storytelling?
Thomas Warfield and Herb Smith are artistic workers and artists. They are examples of artists inspired by the social justice of Douglass, who go beyond the boundaries of “art for art’s sake” to stir the soul, to seek the humanity in non-verbal ways.
Douglass seems to be a historical figure about whom the general public only has a cursory understanding. Our collective knowledge about the man and his legacy can often be summed up in a sentence or two. How does the work address this?
“No Struggle, No Progress” presents an opportunity to look at the life of Frederick Douglass through the voices and eyes of fellow freedom fighters as well as through his own words and letters. Learning about him is a grand undertaking. The more we learn, the more we recognize that we don’t know enough.
Are there any misconceptions about Douglass that this work aims to dispel?
No, we aim to enhance his legacy for it is a complex legacy. The relevance of his prophetic words, visionary leadership, and brilliant analysis of the enslavement of African peoples and its effect on our nation is profound.
What have we yet to learn from Douglass as a society that might help us alleviate institutionalized racial justice?
We have learned that our work to increase moral integrity is far from over; we must remain ever vigilant in working for justice, dignity, and truth. We must be willing to struggle to reach the goal of progress and to confront head-on racial injustice everywhere.
David Shakes was the subject of an episode in CITY’s art/WORK series. Check it out below.