The lives of two men — one born into slavery and one born free — intersected for a brief time near the end of the 19th century.
Frederick Douglass, born in 1818 in Maryland, was a social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer and statesman who lived to be 77 and accomplished much.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was a poet, novelist and playwright born in Ohio in 1872 to parents who had been enslaved in Kentucky before the Civil War. Though he began writing as a child, he lived to be only 33, and died of tuberculosis before he could fill his full potential.
“Dunbar was the black writer of the 19th century,” Ron Stacker Thompson said. “He was the first black poet to make his living as a writer, which is remarkable. He went out of favor, mainly because he wrote in dialect. Even so, up until the 1950s, black families would get together after church and read his work.”
Thompson and Jason McKinney have combined their talents on a musical drama, “Douglass/Dunbar,” that will have its world premiere in one performance only on Feb. 29 at the Willingham Theater in Yadkinville.
Thompson teaches screenwriting in the Film School at UNC School of the Arts and is the artistic director at the Willingham. He is directing the play.
McKinney, a UNCSA alumnus, is an opera singer with an international career.
McKinney, who will play Douglass, also performs a biographical musical play that he created about the great singer-activist Paul Robeson. He is music directing Douglass’ parts.
Nic Brown, an acting student at UNCSA, will play Dunbar, and there are 10 other cast members including well-known local singers Diana Tuffin and Karon Click, McKinney’s wife.
As Thompson and McKinney looked at the lives of Douglass and Dunbar, they found both differences and similarities between them.
“Douglass became who he was — an orator, a politician, an ambassador — by overcoming great obstacles,” Thompson said. “Dunbar had a freedman’s problems, not a slave’s problem.
“They spoke to their people through their own voices but with similar points of view. The feelings and emotions that they shared were similar.”
McKinney said that one of Douglass’ great gifts was that he helped younger black people who were trying to make their way in an often-hostile world.
“Douglass was a very accomplished elderly man who couldn’t help but find other causes to support after abolition,” McKinney said. “And Dunbar was a young man who was never able to fully achieve what he thought was important.
“Douglass virtually adopted him. Dunbar wanted to know that he belonged. Douglass recognized that and wanted him to know that he belonged.”
Douglass, who had been a diplomatic attache in Haiti, came out of retirement to manage the Haitian exhibition at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and hired Dunbar to help him with it.
“Though their time together was short, it was intimate,” McKinney said. “Douglass supported Dunbar financially and artistically.”
Dunbar was 23 when Douglass died in 1995, and he wrote a poem for him at his death.
“The thing that’s so particular about the piece is that it’s a musical drama,” Thompson said. “We usually think of musical comedy. But it’s a drama about two men who — because of their struggles and how they saw life — are really important for us to remember.”
Thompson wrote the book for the play with input from McKinney. The music is a combination of spirituals and classical songs from the 19th century; and Dunbar’s poetry and Douglass’ oratories set to music by Quitman Fludd III, an African American composer who died in the 1980s.
“There are some old spirituals that everybody knows,” Thompson said. “Songs like ‘Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho’ and ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’”
McKinney and Brown play only Douglas and Dunbar, respectively, but the other cast members play several parts of people who were in the great men’s lives.
“It’s moving to see all the roles that the actors — black and white — take on,” Thompson said. “In one scene an actor will be a slaver and in another he will be an abolitionist.”
McKinney started working on his part in 2017 when the Frederick Douglass Honor Society commissioned a piece from him for the Douglass Bicentennial Celebration in Eastern Maryland.
“They were familiar with my work on Paul Robeson,” McKinney said. “I did some research and started setting Douglass’ orations to music. I saw that people had tried to do something on him before me, but his life was so full; he was a Renaissance Man.
“I’m a singer, but I can orate, and I wanted to meld the oration and the singing, so I set the orations to a capella music.”
Douglass described his experiences as a slave in his 1845 autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” which became a bestseller, and was influential in promoting the cause of abolition.
After the Civil War, Douglass remained an active campaigner against slavery and wrote his last autobiography, “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.” Douglass also actively supported women’s suffrage, and held several public offices.
“It’s just so easy to forget our history in this information age,” McKinney said. “I’m very grateful to all of my colleagues in the show who are really giving it their all.
“We’re not a huge group, but we make such a joyful noise when it’s called for. These local legends bring a level of professionalism to it, and it gives the young people a model, and they are taking direction really well. It’s been hard work, but it’s really joyful.”
Although much of Dunbar’s more popular work in his lifetime was written in the “Negro dialect” associated with the antebellum South, he wrote the lyrics for the musical comedy “In Dahomey” (1903), the first all-African-American musical produced on Broadway and toured the country.
Dunbar also wrote other poetry and novels in conventional English, and since the late 20th century, scholars have shown more interest in these works.
“As performer in the 21st century, I think it’s important to remember our heritage,” McKinney said. “Not just the greats who achieved their potential but also the tragic ones who were taken from us too early.”