Sail of the Century: Donal O’Kelly On Frederick Douglass and ‘The Cambria’

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Donal O'Kelly in The Cambria. Photo by Susan Helbock.
Donal O’Kelly in The Cambria. Photo: Susan Helbock.

The 1845 publication of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave was a watershed moment in the abolitionist movement, much as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be seven years later. How Douglass escaped from slavery, how he published his autobiography (which he’d revise and republish several times), how he booked passage on a steamer bound for Ireland from Boston, where he’d spend two years in relative safety, have been the focus of many histories and academic studies. Comparatively few attempts have been made, however, to examine the Cambria voyage via the stage.

In the last few weeks in New York, that has changed significantly. Cambria/Douglass, consisting of a two-play rep — Roger Guenveur Smith’s Frederick Douglass Now, a solo play, and Donal O’Kelly‘s The Cambria, a two-hander — opened at the Irish Arts Center (553 W. 51st St.) on Sept. 23 to enthusiastic reviews. Cambria/Douglass runs through Oct. 25. For tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com or www.irishartscenter.org.

Directed by Raymond Keane and starring O’Kelly and Sorcha Fox, The Cambria also considers the rapturous way in which Douglass was received by the Irish people, and how Douglass grew close to Daniel O’Connell, the great Irish politico of the day, as the great Irish potato famine began to decimate the society.

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Shortly after the plays’ opening, it seemed to me that while Smith’s work is relatively well known in this country, the work of O’Kelly, comparative speaking, is not. As an introduction, here is the bio from his website:

Donal O’Kelly is a writer and actor. His much-travelled solo plays include the award-winning Catalpa (Edinburgh Fringe First, London Time Out Critics’ Choice, Best Event Melbourne International Festival), Bat The Father Rabbit The Son (Best Writer and Best Actor nominations Irish Theatre Awards), and Jimmy Joyced! (Best Actor nomination Irish Theatre Awards)

His play The Cambria, about Frederick Douglass’ voyage to Ireland in 1845, performed with Sorcha Fox, toured Ireland, as well as playing the U.K. and Los Angeles. Vive La, a 1798 spy story mummer play, toured Ireland in 2007, and was revived in the Project in 2008. Running Beast, his music-theatre piece with music by Michael Holohan, has toured Europe since its premiere in September 2007.

Other plays include The Dogs (Rough Magic), Hughie On The Wires, Trickledown Town, The Business Of Blood, Farawayan, (all Calypso) Asylum! Asylum! (Peacock, Traverse Edinburgh, Ottawa and Boston), Mamie Sighs, Judas Of The Gallarus (Peacock) and The Hand (Dublin Theatre Festival).

He has twice been awarded an Irish Arts Council literature bursary, and in 1999 was awarded the Irish American Cultural Institute Butler Literary Award. He set up Donal O’Kelly Productions in 2000, and has toured extensively at home and abroad since then.

As an actor, his film roles include leading roles in Roddy Doyle’s The Van and in the acclaimed bilingual film Kings, Brainer in Spin The Bottle and Funny Face in I Went Down.

On stage, he has played Lincoln Center with Beckett’s Act Without Words I, Toronto’s Winter Garden as Lucky in Waiting For Godot, Joxer in the Abbey Theatre’s Juno And The Paycock, Sean O’Casey in Colm Toibin’s Beauty In A Broken Place at the Peacock, and he has toured to the U.K., Europe, the U.S., Canada and Australia with his Donal O’Kelly Productions plays.

He was a founder and for ten years until 2003 a director of Calypso Productions, and he is an associate director of the peace and justice organisation Afri. In 2007 he was elected to Aosdana.

You’ve been performing The Cambria for four years now. Can you discuss how your performance has evolved or changed?
I think the main way it has changed is that it’s like a musican playng a piece of music: you get into the groove of the rhythms better over time. I think it always takes a piece anywhere from six weeks to two months to get into top gear, you know? After that it becomes an ejoyable experience. For the two of us — myself and Sorcha — it’s a nice mind-trip to go on.

Surely, though, you’re still finding things in Frederick Douglass.
I think you have to find them. I wouldn’t like it to sound like a duty, but it’s part of the job to find new things every time and an enjoyable part of the performance. It still genuinely feels quite fresh to me. I think maybe it’s because we know why we’re doing the play.

O'Kelly, with Sorcha FoxI’ll bite: Why are you doing the play? Other than because you wrote it.
Well, it’s a challenge. Originally it was a challenge to the creation of Irish immigration procedures, which is something I’ve written about over the last 20 years in different ways as the contexts in Ireland changed. I found myself tackling the subject in many different ways — then I found the story of Douglass’ journey, how it represented an assertive and affirmative platform to challenge the status quo. With Obama and the election — Obama quoted Douglass during the campaign — that opened up the window for me.

Can you describe what you believe to be the political effect of The Cambria so far?
One of the things I could see coming when I was writing the play was forced deportation. You see, Ireland has always been an immigrant or emigrant culture; because of the economy and because of the affluence bubble in that happened during the 1990s, there was quite an influx of immigrants: refugees from Africa and Eastern European countries — and they were being clearly treated in a careless manner. I’d written a couple of plays before about the issue: The Asylum, which ran at the Abbey theatre in the mid-’90s, for example. For me, The Cambria was a way to look at the issue again but from a positive perspective — how Ireland, at one time, had treated this refugee, this Mr. Douglass, very well, this man who went on to become such an icon. On the night we opened the play in 2005, the very first deportation flights left Ireland for Lagos, Nigeria.

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What’s really driving Ireland’s immigration policy, then? Good old xenophobia?
A general state of unpreparedness, actually, plus a few years of not knowing what to really do. We’ve always had a bit of a victim complex, you know — suddenly we were strutting around like we were major economic player in the world, which we’ve since discovered is a complete fallacy. So it took awhile to formulate a workable policy with regard to the immigrant question. As there are in any country, there were horrific racism incidents — “in retrospect, it could have been worse” is the best that can be said, I suppose. Now the rate of immigration has fallen hugely with the recession in Ireland.

I have to say that until I started researching, I had no idea Douglass had visited Ireland, much less all the dramatic details.
Very few people know about that, it turns out, especially lots of African Americans, who have been coming to the play and have been, if I may this, amazed. That’s why we wanted to bring it to New York. We’re proud and honored to be a part of the fact, too, that this event is happening at the Irish Arts Center, because it’s really hub of multiculturalism to be running two Frederick Douglass-themed plays.

After the performance, do you people wait to speak to you and, if they do, how are there questions different from the usual post-show questions?
That’s the been fantastic part of this experience. Talking to African Americans afterwards — the other night I talked with a woman who lives a few block from the Irish Arts Center. Through Cambria/Douglass, somehow she found that she was coming in to see a play about Frederick Douglass.

So what, then, is the Irish perspective on the African American experience?
Frederick Douglass is very famous for this quote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” I think that resonates as such a basic truth; I find myself quoting it at least once a day. I see how our job as artists is to help craft the demand which power must concede. It suppose it’s what you always hope for when you plant the seeds of a work of art: you hope the ripples will go further, and hopefully in unexpected ways. As for speaking for Ireland as a whole, I wouldn’t trust myself with that job.

And so I hope that the Cambria story resonates, because Douglass was eventually received as a hero in Ireland. Yes, he had a false ID and papers, yes he was the classic asylum seeker, yes he was, basically, an illegal immigrant. But he ended up speaking on platforms with O’Connell, who was the most heroic man of his age; together they were cheered as heroes.

What kind of research did you do to write and then co-perform the play?
It was a long sort of sifting process — you’ve got to weigh the dramatic shape of the story against the form in which the story is presented. You have to get everything into 90 minutes, so there’s a certain amount of ruthless editing that has to happen. In the process of writing, too, you get to a point when you say “No more research!” That’s liberating to do.

Research comes before the redrafting and rehearsals when other factors come into play, like the overall goal of why you’re doing the play! In our case, two of us perform all the parts; that would suggest, in the rewrites, whatever will facilitate making it easier to do. Our director, Raymond Keene, also has a certain input, pushing the whole thing along, manipulating parts to make it all work in the best possible way. It’s scary to think this play even came out of me.

Also, you’re playing Frederick Douglass, among other roles, and you’re not black.
I asked myself if I was legitimizing or delegitimizing the play, but in the format of the play, we’re playing multipe roles and someone has to play Frederick Douglass. It’s a huge reach, I know, an enormous step to try and play him. The amount that I’ve read about him and about the speeches he gave — I think there’s an amount of trust you have to give to the audience, too. You’ve got to try to create that trust with them. If you can create it, they will trust letting you inhabit Frederick Douglass, they’ll trust him becoming visible in your body for a certain length of time. The audience in this play is challenged all the time to see different people; there are eight, nine characters on the stage.

That said, I know about the difficulty for black actors to get roles and here’s a role for a black character that isn’t even being played by a black man. In a way, though, I think maybe this is why audiences respond positively to the play. I’d hope we kind of rise above the debate because of the way the prodcution is done, so that the issue of a white guy as an African-American icon doesn’t arise.