The opportunity to see plays about historical figures on or near the grounds where they performed the deeds that secured their immortality is not uncommon here in our Nation’s Capital. And while I know Frederick Douglass didn’t move here until after the Civil War, there’s still something stirring about watching the magnetic Marquis D. Gibson embody the famed abolitionist at the Anacostia Playhouse, less than half a mile from the home where Douglass spent the last 17 years of his life, and only about a mile from the bridge over the Anacostia River named in his honor 55 years after his death.
The play is Idris Goodwin’s taut and haunting 2015 drama The Raid, presented by Theater Alliance, which details the white abolitionist leader John Brown’s attempts to persuade Douglass and Harriet Tubman, among other enemies of slavery whose names are not as deeply inscribed in our national memory, to support his doomed 1859 assault on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown hoped this operation would allow him to arm a guerilla force of liberated slaves and conscientious whites to scare slave owners from hideaways in the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains. If you know Brown’s name, you know how that ended.
But Goodwin and director Colin Hovde make this musty 19th century story feel urgent and contemporary anyway. Hovde seats his actors in the audience to watch the scenes they’re not performing in along with the rest of us. With a run time of only 80 minutes, there’s the no opportunity for the tension to dissipate.
Like all social justice movements, the drive to end slavery had radical and temperate factions. That’s the seam of history Goodwin runs his finger over here. Brown, played with arresting zealotry by Nicklas Aliff, believed his campaign of violent insurrection to be divinely inspired. Those who fear his divine rage—like his own adolescent son who pleads with his father to show mercy in his holy war—or doubt his tactical acumen—like Henri Kagi (Josh Adams), his 35-years-younger second in command, or Emperor (Dylan Fleming), an aide to Douglass—risk his wrath. And those who, like Douglass and Tubman (Tiffany Byrd), believed he should wait for the war they all saw coming and then volunteer his services for the Union Army, break his heart.
Hovde has configured the black-box playhouse with seats on all four sides and the actors in the middle. Danielle Preston’s period-noncommittal costumes, Megan Thrift’s nocturnal lighting design, Kevin Alexander’s war drums-inspired soundscape, and Cliff Williams III’s brutal fight choreography all gel into a transfixing illusion of long ago despite the absence of a set. (Scenic designer Jessica Cancino conjures the rugged landscape of Harpers Ferry with some paper or fabric wall hangings suggestive of a rock face.) John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, according to one of the most popular songs of 1861. But his ghost is alive and well.
At the Anacostia Playhouse to March 18. 2020 Shannon Place SE. $30–$40. (202) 241-2539. theateralliance.com.