Featured photo: Left, Cornelius Smith Jr. (Frederick Douglass) in American Prophet, which ran July 15-Aug. 28 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C. Photo By Margot Sschulman
By Rachel Wedding McClelland | Photos By Margot Schulman and Cameron Whitman
“If ye have whispered truth, whisper no longer, Speak as the tempest does, sterner and stronger.” —Frederick Douglass
A two-time graduate of the University of Tennessee, Reggie Hill (Martin ’77, College of Law ’80) has taken on an unexpected role since his retirement from his work as a health-care attorney.
Hill served as a senior vice president and chief compliance and policy officer with Lifepoint Health prior to his retirement two years ago. His responsibilities included oversight of the ethics and compliance program, and he worked on health-care policy issues for more than 80 hospitals in 30 states. Hill also was a partner with a Nashville law firm for more than 30 years, where he headed the health-care industry group. He also served on the board and in other management roles for 20 years.
So finding him in the wings of the stage of a theatrical production in Washington, D.C., this summer might have seemed like an unexpected turn. But, in reality, his role as producer of American Prophet: Frederick Douglass In His Own Words has been many years in the making.
Hill first met Marcus Hummon more than 20 years ago through Hummon’s wife. Hummon was a Nashville-based songwriter and producer who aspired to see his music performed on theatrical stages. After attending a performance of Hummon’s first show, the two men met and began talking about their shared interests. Soon after, they became theater partners.
“I’ve always enjoyed music and theater,” says Hill, who has served on the boards of several arts organizations throughout the years because of his love for artistic creativity and the messages that can be told through artistic expression. “When I met somebody I liked who needed a partner, I was really just interested in the opportunity to work with someone who is talented to see if we could develop shows.”
Through the years, Hummon wrote shows that had limited runs and were well-received at the New York Music and Theater Festival but “didn’t get the legs they needed to go to regional theaters or off-Broadway,” Hill says.
That changed in 2015 after Hummon began researching and writing about the life of Frederick Douglass who, after escaping from slavery in Maryland, became a national leader of the abolitionist movement. Douglass, famous for his eloquent autobiographical antislavery writing, became a counterexample to arguments that slaves lacked the capacity to function as independent American citizens.
“At first the show was a choral piece performed at a church,” Hill says. “We started talking about making it into more of a musical theater piece, and it turned out to be the right thing to do.”
With many of the songs and a version of the book already written, Hummon began a collaboration with New York-based theater director and playwright Charles Randolph-Wright, and together they further developed the show American Prophet: Frederick Douglass In His Own Words. It chronicles the life of Douglass as a human-rights leader, author, orator and statesman. After setbacks related to the COVID pandemic, the play had its first preview run at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., July 15 through Aug. 28.
With favorable reviews from the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, the Washington Informer and Broadway World and phrases like a “mesmerizing” and “majestic … tour de force,” Hill is thrilled to see where the play might go next.
In discussions with the cast prior to the Arena Stage opening, Randolph-Wright, who also served as the play’s director, told the group that the play attempts to encapsulate the “bad-ass period” of Douglass’s life when he became an active campaigner and sought-after speaker advocating for abolition and the rights of freed slaves.
“What Frederick Douglass went through and who he became is the inspiration for all of us, no matter what age we are, no matter what color we are,” he says.
Hummon and Randolph-Wright wrote the lines of the play by examining the words of Douglass through books, speeches and letters to discover the love he had for his wife, Anna, and the journey their lives took together.
“This really deals with him when he was trying to figure out how to be a prophet,” Wright says. “How do you do that? How does someone who has been given this moniker, how do you take that on?”
Cornelius Smith Jr., best known for portraying Marcus Walker on the TV series Scandal and Frankie Hubbard in the soap opera All My Children, performed the title role following Douglass through his 30s and 40s.
“Ninety percent of the words that I speak as Frederick Douglass in this production are his actual words,” Smith says in a video message produced by Arena Stage. “That’s crazy to think about because, when you hear some of these speeches and some of these things that he said, you automatically realize how relevant they are today.”
“The point of the show is to say, ‘Hey, let’s wake up,’” Smith says. ‘Let’s get active.’”
The relevance of Douglass’s words helped inspire Hummon, Hill and Randolph-Wright to take their journey with the show.
One of the lines is, “If ye have whispered truth, whisper no longer. Speak as the tempest does, sterner and stronger,” Wright says, and that should inspire all to remember, “We have to do all that we do out loud.”
“This show is one for which we really do have an opportunity to present a very powerful story,” Hill says. “The message Frederick Douglass advocated is still relevant and resonates today.”