In November of 1857 Frederick Douglass gave a speech at the Federated Church in Edgartown titled The Unity of Man. A few decades later, in 1876, Mr. Douglass returned to the Vineyard to speak at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs.

This Saturday, the pioneering abolitionist, feminist, author and master orator visits the Tabernacle stage once again, in the form of Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show, Frederick Douglass Now.

The show is presented by the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh in partnership with the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association.

While it may seem like a stretch to say Frederick Douglass himself will walk the boards of the Tabernacle on Saturday night, consider that by his own estimation Mr. Smith has performed the show nearly 1,000 times over the past few decades. His journey with Mr. Douglass began as an undergraduate at Occidental College.

“I was an American Studies major and I was looking for a project to combine my interests in history, biography and performance,” he said in a recent interview with the Gazette. “So I started digging into the Douglass archives.”

He had been inspired by the late Hal Holbrook, who for over 50 years performed a one-man show of Mark Twain.

“He would do Twain, whatever Twain was for that particular political moment in America,” Mr. Smith said. “And it was a remarkable, ongoing, kind of ever-changing thing that Hal Holbrook did with Mark Twain, and I thought that Douglass would be someone who would lend himself to that as well, considering how prolific he was as a writer, as a speaker, and one of the greatest orators in an age of oratory.”

Mr. Smith first created the show as a college undergraduate and has continued to perform it for decades. — Jeanna Shepard

Mr. Smith set to work back in his college days and created an earlier version that even his mom said was too long, he noted. But in the decades since, he honed both the Douglass performance and his craft. His film and theatre credits run as long as a Frederick Douglass speech. His one-man show about Huey P. Newton won an Obie Award and was adapted for film by Spike Lee, along with a one-man show about Rodney King. And he has had roles in dozens of movies, including Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X.

But he has always returned to Frederick Douglass, performing on stage, in the streets, wherever the muse takes him.

“The current version of Frederick Douglass Now was really first commissioned by the great Ellen Stewart at La MaMa,” he said. “That’s where we first really started pulling together the classic Douglass 19th-century texts with the new technology. The final performance of Douglass at La MaMa was the day that Nelson Mandela walked out of prison. And Ellen Stewart came out and rang a bell. That was a tremendous day to be in the theatre and to be doing this kind of work, which I like to think was related to the same work that Mr. Mandela was doing.”

Mr. Smith’s performances are always grounded in history but bring with them whatever the present moment delivers.

“I think that there are so many things that he wrote, so many things that he said, that connect to our current moment. I know that coming into Martha’s Vineyard on Saturday we will be thinking about Haiti, we will be thinking about Afghanistan. We will be thinking about this pandemic that we’ve been engaged in for the last year and a half.”

Mr. Smith visited the Vineyard in the summer of 2017 for a conversation with Spike Lee at the African American Film Festival about their collaboration on the Rodney King film of Mr. Smith’s performance. And although he has not been on stage at the Tabernacle he has walked the grounds and he knows how the Vineyard has long kept the memory and words of Frederick Douglass alive, reenacting each year on July 4th, Mr. Douglass’s speech The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro.

The show will be Mr. Smith’s first time back on stage since the pandemic sent him into Zoom-land, performing and teaching virtually.

“And I’m honored because I’m speaking in a place where Douglass himself spoke. That is very, very special,” he said. “I have to make it work in the present, not just political moment, but also the present emotional moment.”

Roger Guenveur Smith performs his one-man show Frederick Douglass Now at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs at 7 p.m. on Saturday, August 21. The show is presented by the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh in partnership with the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. For tickets and information, visit