Three actors will step into the shoes of icons of American history during Maryland Humanities’ 24th annual Chautauqua living history series. Montgomery College-Germantown is among the eight Maryland locations to host the 2018 performances with the theme of “Seeking Justice.”
Chautauqua originated as the New York Chautauqua Assembly, a Methodist educational summer camp organized in 1874 on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in upstate New York. The gatherings, which expanded to more than 400 communities by 1900, featured lectures, performances and debates. Chautauquas took place in late 19th century Maryland at Mountain Lake Park in Garrett County and Glen Echo Park in Montgomery County. Maryland Humanities started the current program in 1995 at Garrett College.
This year’s performers will present their interpretations of the contributions to justice of three historical activists: writer, orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass on Wednesday, July 11; humanitarian, diplomat and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on Thursday, July 12, and the lead NAACP attorney in Brown v. Board of Education and first African American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on Friday, July 13.
Bill Grimmette began playing the young Frederick Douglass in the 1990s; the role was among several characters he portrayed at Smithsonian Institution museums. “As the years have progressed, I have had to add the aging Douglass to my repertoire by default,” said the Gambrils, Maryland-based actor who grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s in Alabama “during American apartheid/racial segregation, (when) the Jim Crow laws restricted free access to the ‘blessings of liberty’ guaranteed by the Constitution to include the right to vote for blacks.”
The aging Douglass, which Grimmette will present in Germantown, has become his favorite, he said, noting that the character will be set “in his usual environment, speaking before an assembled crowd about the conditions that define American justice.”
“This is, by far, my most inspiring character to portray,” said Grimmette who also has performed as Martin Luther King, Jr., Benjamin Banneker and W.E.B. Du Bois at various Chautauquas. “While the others are wonderful, Douglass had the greatest range of character — from 20 years enslaved to 57 years as an unschooled but thoroughly educated activist who held presidential appointments from his first encounter with Abraham Lincoln to Benjamin Harrison.”
Douglass, explained Grimmette, “was born at a very propitious time: 1818 was in the middle of the second generation of Americans born into the new fledgling nation and it fell upon that generation to activate, define and execute the provisions of the Constitution that had been envisioned by the founders just 31 years earlier.”
The time “between the American Revolution and its ‘promissory note’ of equality, liberty and justice for all and the Civil War,” which tested the young nation, he continued “is the richest period of our history in my view for it is a constant fight to determine whether our democratic republic was intended to be inclusive or exclusive of all.”
“What is compelling for me in this role is that I get to objectively review the arguments between the intention of the founders vs. the intention of the scoundrels [those who wanted to enshrine slavery in the Constitution],” Grimmette said. “The founders told us in the Preamble their intention to ‘ordain’ and ‘establish’ this Constitution, while the Scoundrels have perverted that intention by a peculiar Invention that the words in the Preamble did not pertain to the rest of the document. This is great grist for the storyteller’s mill.”
Grimmette finds contemporary resonance in this conflict of ideas. “The debate about the various political issues of today are deeply reminiscent of the same debates of Douglass’ years. It is very important for us to show that the power of America resides in her ability to demonstrate to the world how to forge a path to greatness by converging the visions, hopes and dreams of every segment of our diverse population.
“Audiences need to come and hear the arguments of history to better understand their role in determining the direction of the nation today,” he observed, adding that “scoundrels are not only the ones who argued against the Constitution at the time of its creation, but the many since who continue to try to make it exclude people from its protections on the basis of bigotry. We the people is all-inclusive.
Susan Marie Frontczak, who will portray Eleanor Roosevelt, took part in community theater in Michigan while growing up and later helped found a community theater in Colorado. An engineering major in college, she worked at Hewlett-Packard while “practicing the avocation of storytelling.” In 1994, a year’s leave of absence from her job allowed her to try storytelling full-time – and she never returned. Instead, she began developing her first living history portrayal: “a full-length (two-hour) one-woman show as Marie Curie, which debuted in 2001.” Edited down for Chautauqua presentations, she has presented her Curie to “33 of the United States and nine countries abroad.”
Author Mary Shelley came next, in 2003. Realizing she had “represented a Polish scientist who worked in France and an Englishwoman who never set foot in the U.S,” Frontczak realized she wanted “an American character, of national stature, who I wasn’t too old to portray for a while. Eleanor Roosevelt kept rising to the top of the list.
“Two sides of me argued,” she recalled, “one side demanding, ‘How dare you attempt Eleanor Roosevelt?’ and the other urging, ‘Her story needs to be told, the way she would tell it.’”
Frontczak’s research revealed “that this woman’s life was much larger, covered far more topics, and over many more decades, than any of my previous ladies. No one Chautauqua program can cover her life. The sheer amount of primary source material available is mind-boggling. The FDR presidential library in Hyde Park, New York, houses more than 1,000 feet of Eleanor Roosevelt papers.”
She ended up creating three different Roosevelt programs: the first set in 1937, the second during World War II (1942) and the third, which she will present in Germantown in conjunction with the theme of justice, focusing on “her role at the United Nations working on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (1950). She noted that the U.N. Headquarters hosted the program in December, launching its “year-long celebration leading up to the 70-year anniversary of the acceptance of the UDHR on Dec.10, 2018.”
Brian Anthony Wilson will reprise much of the first act of Olney Theatre Center’s July-August 2017 production of George Stevens Jr.’s one-man play “Thurgood.” “It tells a great story about his earlier life,” Wilson observed.
He finds the role of Thurgood Marshall compelling for many reasons. “The man was an icon, ‘Mr. Civil Rights.’ I’m ashamed that I didn’t know more about him before I accepted the role but am honored to have ‘artistically’ walked in his shoes.”
The role for the Philadelphia-bred actor “was the most challenging role I’ve ever tackled,” he said. “A one-man show is daunting enough, by your lonesome, on stage for two 40-minute acts, but the enormity of the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall made this role that much more challenging.”
For the Chautauqua show, he noted, “I won’t have the ‘luxury’ of the amazing wig I wore or the timely sound cues or the wonderful slide show we were blessed with during the run at Olney Theatre Center. It’s just ‘lil ole me’ up there, no bells and whistles.”
Wilson, who now lives in “South Jersey, 25 minutes across the bridge from Philly,” started his acting career at the city’s Freedom Theatre. He rates Marshall as one of his top two roles; the other was the lead in “King Hedley II” at the Philadelphia Theatre Company in 2003. Third, he added, would be Det. Vernon Holley on HBO’s “The Wire.” As for his upcoming Chautauqua shows, Wilson said, “I am thrilled for the opportunity to step into this great man’s shoes once again and to share some of his amazing journey with another group of folks!”
Wilson will chat with scholar Lenneal Henderson, professor emeritus at University of Baltimore and a visiting professor at the College of William and Mary, after his presentation. Since 2004, Henderson has brought Marshall to life some 100 times in his play, “Thurgood is Coming,” which he wrote in an effort “to find a creative way for Maryland Humanities to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.” During the Chautauqua dialogue, which the two initiated at Olney Theatre, Henderson said they will try “to convey who Thurgood Marshall was as a person, why he became the man he was,” including some little-known but interesting biographical facts.
Maryland Humanities will present “Chautauqua 2018: Seeking Justice” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 11 (Frederick Douglass); Thursday, July 12 (Eleanor Roosevelt), and Friday, July 13 (Thurgood Marshall), at Globe Hall in the High Technology Building at Montgomery College-Germantown, 20200 Observation Drive, Germantown. Admission is free. Visit www.mdhumanities.org/chautauqua.