On Sunday morning, Feb. 19 at 11am, we will attempt to bring Frederick Douglass into the beautiful chapel at St. Clement's Church with a new composition I've been working on. (Our choir is a highly trained, world class choir with magnificent voices and Broadway credits. I'd be a fool to not use them. I'm so excited. If you're planning to come, come early because we'll be in the tiny chapel rather than on the stage in the main theater).
For weeks, I have been obsessing over this great man, reading all his speeches and rereading his autobiographies. I feel wholly inadequate to the task, so I will have to pray for his spirit to rise up and guide me -- and us.
But the only way I truly know how to learn about him is to listen to his words as I say them aloud in my work sessions. Listen to the meticulously careful way he allows his deeply felt, pain and anger to be expressed. Graceful, humble, hilarious, truthful, gentle, unrelenting, credible, sometimes with sarcasm so subtle that it feels more like a loving parent's gentle rebuke and yet so pointed, a razor-sharp, ninja slice so deadly, that no logical argument against it, however brilliant and twisted, is even possible.
Naked, without his mother, alone on a dirt floor. He rose from the bottom of a corrupt society. He had nothing to lose. So he told the truth.
Imagine that. Someone who tells the truth.
In our day, and just as much in his day, clever people are/were able to use just enough of the truth to form an acceptable argument for those predisposed to the message. This happens on all sides. This is the human condition. This is not merely about politics. A good con man knows this.
This is who we are.
But every once in a while some voice comes along. And you know the voice is telling a truth that is grounded in a deeper place.
Someone with nothing left to lose, who has already seen the worst horror, has already lived the worst atrocity, there is nothing left that you can do to him except try to lock him up again.
The Fugitive Slave Act speech that Douglass gives, where he exposes the fact that this law returned the entire country into a slave state, meant that every word and every movement of his could land him in some hellhole, naked on a plantation in Mississippi or Alabama. (Though world famous, had a very angry and frustrated "owner.")
So he simply told the truth.
I experienced this myself when I thought I was going to die, 20 years ago. When I had nothing left to lose, when I knew that my end was coming, a different kind of chemical must've invaded my head from someplace deep inside because I can remember the exact moment when it went away, and I thought to myself, "Is this what life used to be like?"
And I've been chasing that state of mind ever since.
It is like a transcendent experience. No way to convey it it to you. Because there is only my memory of it. Then there is the description of my memory of it. Then there is your reception of the description of my memory of it. And finally, your conclusion about the reception of the description of my memory of it.
I have been yearning to find that state again. To accept my death so presently that I can get my those chemicals pumping back into my head again. That state of mind.
And I found it. I found it in the writings of Frederick Douglass. It is there. It is unmistakable. It is wise. It is final. It is thrilling. It comes from direct experience but it's only a state of mind. And everyone knows it when they hear it.
To be born again.
And it is there in the hand and the pen and the voice and the words and the spirit of Frederick Douglass.
How do you put that into a song?
Or maybe I should be asking myself what, besides music, can capture it?
And once again I shrink from the monumental task. How could I ever write anything that would be worthy? I wonder if Linn-Manuel Miranda asked himself these questions when he was reading about Hamilton? There must've been a moment when he said I know this guy.
I have not gotten there with Fredrick Douglass. And no, I'm not going to write a musical where I portray Frederick Douglass. White people playing black people has already been done and it doesn't really work for me.
But if he is watching me and guiding me, which he literally is because his words are right there in front of me, then the best I can do is just tell the truth. The only way I know how. With utter simplicity and a piano.
And I do have one thing working in my favor.
Thank God for deadlines.