‘The Escape of Frederick Douglass’ educates through entertainment

Illustration of an actor playing Frederick Douglass, lit up by a lantern that he's holding
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Performed by Darryl Van Leer as part of The Marsh’s solo performance spotlight series, “The Escape of Frederick Douglass” is Leer’s adaption of the iconic memoir, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.” Filmed in a singular, intimate setting, Leer’s solo performance is full of life, passion and clever adaptability. 

The play begins with Leer sitting at a wooden desk, upon which is placed a candle, a piece of parchment and writing instruments. Leer wears a 19th-century historically accurate suit and a calm expression upon his face. Behind him hang black-out curtains, making the compressed setting seem even more timeless. It is clear that the scene is set in a house, not on a stage, which affords the performance important realism.

Leer as Douglass begins with his place of birth, explaining that he is unsure of his exact age, as slaves were not told their birthdays. Speaking with a heavy but measured voice, Leer’s embodiment of the author is effortlessly realistic and feels as if Douglass himself had burst forth from the book. 

Leer paints a picture of Douglass’ early life, explaining that his father was a white man and his mother a slave, whom he only saw a handful of times before her untimely death. Douglass then stands up, places a straw hat on his head and turns towards the chair he had just sat in to say, “Your mama dead.” Leer uses this hat, and a variety of voices, to create numerous other characters throughout the play. 

Leer includes specific, select moments from Douglass’ narrative to round out his 60-minute performance, staying true to much of Douglass’ own wording but occasionally supplementing with his own interpretations. Notably, he describes how his 80-year-old grandmother was left in the woods, in the middle of the night, by masters who no longer saw her as useful. Douglass’ anger and helplessness is palpable in this scene, making it all the more heart wrenching. 

A significant portion of the play is dedicated to Douglass’ time at Edward Covey’s camp, where masters sent their slaves “to be broken.” These scenes illustrate the cruelty of slavery, but also Douglass’ fighting spirit, which gave him the bravery to later escape to the North. 

Leer’s performance brings Douglass’ narrative to life and adds new depth to this American classic. Leer’s mastery over his emotions is breathtaking as his voice rises in anger, lowers in assurance and preaches with passion. The performance is extremely limited in its use of props, space and visual aesthetics, but Leer’s voice is transformative and boundless in its ability to bring personalized depth to the play. 

After the performance, Leer himself came onscreen to discuss the performance with Marsh founder and executive director, Stephanie Weisman, and answer questions. He explained the challenges he faced in filming the performance, as well as his adaptability and dedication to the play. Leer thanked his son, Brandon Van Leer, for filming the performance on his cell phone and helping to edit the performance together. The quality of the film was indeed on the grainy side, and the audio quality unfortunately included a slight echo. However, these challenges are a natural consequence of theater being pushed to online platforms and actually added a unique element of realism to the performance. 

Leer’s presence at the end of the play was truly a treat and one of the highlights of The Marsh’s solo performance spotlight series, as the play is made all the more meaningful from his explanations. Leer talked about how Douglass’ narrative is an inspiration to him, as he believes strongly in “education through entertainment.” He elaborated, “I find scripts that can make a difference … (and) hopefully make a change in people’s lives.” 

The chat box was full of congratulatory remarks by the time the stream ended, and the audience’s sentiment was clearly felt. We can’t wait to see what else Leer brings to the stage.

Nathalie Grogan covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].