He’s been seen on the big screen in director Spike Lee’s best-known movies and on the small screen masterfully portraying the title role in his Peabody Award-winning “A Huey P. Newton Story.” Now he has been seen on the campus of Morgan State University, channeling the spirit of abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass, whose historic statue stands at the center of the University’s Academic Quad.
Roger Guenveur Smith’s name may not be as widely recognized as, say, Denzel Washington’s or Don Cheadle’s, but his contributions to film and stage as an actor, writer and director have not gone unrecognized. Throughout his career, Smith has been able to extract much from characters large and small, and it is that broad experience he was able to share during his daylong visit to Morgan, which came courtesy of the James H. Gilliam, Jr., College of Liberal Arts’ Screenwriting and Animation (SWAN) program and its director/associate professor Keith Mehlinger. Smith also treated students and faculty to his widely acclaimed one-man show, “Frederick Douglass Now!”
“We’re honored to have Roger Guenveur Smith bring this important work to Baltimore, specifically to the campus of Morgan,” said Mehlinger. “His interdisciplinary approach to storytelling, along with a commitment to ensuring black history is included in the story of America, represent the work our program celebrates and prepares our students to create.”
The appearance included Smith’s visit to several SWAN classes before engaging in an intimate performance of his one-man show at the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center Recital Hall. A genre-blending monologue inspired by the life and work of one of America’s greatest public intellectuals, “Frederick Douglas Now!” combines spoken word and sermon, hip-hop and historic quotes. The play has been lauded by a number of publications, including Variety, The New York Times and Playbill.
For his debut at Morgan, Smith captivated the standing-room-only audience with his original performance piece. Included among the many poignant passages Smith passionately delivered was the following:
If there is no struggle, there is no progress
That was the rap of brother Frederick Douglass
From 1818 to 1895
MC Freddie D. the man is still alive
In 1985, he was alive
In 1986, we threw him in the mix
In 1987, he was looking down from heaven
In 1988, he said mash down apart hate
Smash down apart
Mash down, smash down, bash down apart hate
In ’89, he was right on time
And now it’s how many years after the film “Do the Right Thing”
And I still gotta bust this rhyme?
They love black music, but they hate black people
They love this riddim
They love this rhyme
But when it comes to the struggle
They don’t have the time
After the performance, Smith led a group of students and faculty on a cross-campus march from the Murphy Fine Arts Center to the statue of Frederick Douglass located in front of the University’s historic Holmes Hall. There, beneath the shadow of Douglass’ majestic likeness, which stands as an enduring reminder of past contributions that have paved a way for some of the very benefits we enjoy today, Smith engaged the students in a question and answer session.
With a career that spans decades, Smith is best known for his roles in popular film and television shows including K Street, Oz, “Malcolm X,” “American Gangster,” “Chi-Raq” and “Do the Right Thing.” “Frederick Douglas Now!” is Smith’s third one-man play to be adapted to film, following “A Huey P. Newton Story” and “Rodney King.”
The SWAN program serves as Morgan’s interdisciplinary cinematic arts and sciences major. Much more than a film major, SWAN lays the groundwork for evolving artists, filmmakers and content producers to forge career paths in entertainment, education, science and business, in an era when visual storytelling is the dominant narrative form.