Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

‘Frederick Douglass Project’ makes virtual space for discussion about belonging

By Heather Longley
A screen capture from the live Zoom event displaying a 4 by 4 video grid of actors, panelists, and community participants.

Members of the Penn State Commonwealth campuses joined the Center for the Performing Arts in honoring the 19th-century American abolitionist in the Theater of War Productions presentation of “The Frederick Douglass Project.”

The free Feb. 8, 2023, program featured a live reading, panel feedback and a public discussion, a throwback to the center’s pandemic-era virtual programming—a livestreamed, moderated Zoom call in which speakers were shown in separate screens.

The program was introduced by moderator Bryan Doerries, author and Theater of War artistic director; and Dominic Dupont, a Theater of War community liaison. Dupont brought the anchoring perspective of a man who referenced his own lived experience in the carceral system. He introduced the speech by stating its relevance to today and to “hear how long these systemic problems have been in existence.”

Emmy Award-winning actor Keith David channeled Douglass in a speech delivered at the National Convention of Colored Men in Louisville, Kentucky, on Sept. 24, 1883. The convention, almost 20 years after the end of the Civil War, was controversial. White and Black leaders debated its necessity, optics and the chance of vote interference. Douglass’ speech defined the need for the convention by explaining the urgency for Black communities to secure full voting rights, fair and equal treatment, and the demand to be considered American.

“He reminded Americans of all kinds that racial inequality remained the law of the land,” DouglassDay.com said of the address.

The complete virtual event is now available to stream online.

Multiple perspectives

After David’s reading, seven community panelists shared their reactions. They included Penn State students Natnael Abate, Alessandra Ayoub, Avery Chahl, Ava Starks and Julio Toussaint; Terry Watson, assistant director of Penn State Student Disability Services; and Janel Moore-Almond, teacher and writer for the Colored Conventions Project.

Chahl said the Black struggle reflected in Douglass’ speech paved the way for her own success. But as a person of color, she said she held reverence to the Black experience and what it means to be doubted as a “real American.”

“My family immigrated from India. … That’s due to the civil rights movement, and how the immigration laws were changed in the late 1960s that allowed me to be here today,” she said. “So I have lived in America since I was 2. I had so many experiences, living here in central Pennsylvania, where you realize that no matter how long you live here, some people never see you as American.”

Viewers also shared heartfelt reactions in a public session. Comments came from State College-area viewers and people from around the United States, including State College Borough Council member Divine Lipscomb; Washington, D.C., author Karen Branan, who spoke of her ancestors’ involvement in anti-Black violence; independent Douglass scholar Dr. Rhone Fraser; and Dr. Kathy Bullock, a gospel artist and educator.

A writer named Starlit compared Douglass’ impassioned defense of the African-American man’s right to a convention to the backlash against Black Lives Matter, and even sexual assault survivors.

“It’s not that [only] one group does matter, but it’s that the marginalized group keeps speaking without being heard,” she said, before sharing a poem.

Real impact

Bullock posed a rhetorical question—do Black people still have hope for a better future in America?—to a resounding yes.

“Yes, there are barriers, and the system isn’t built for me and other people like me,” said Abate, a fourth-year Penn State student studying bio-behavioral health. “But it’s the more we talk about it and have conversations and events such as this here, I feel like the more impact we would be able to have.”

Dmitri Vaughn II, who earned a doctorate in chemistry at Penn State in 2014, said he was compelled to share his opinions at this event he took a chance on attending: “I kept getting Facebook ads about Keith David hosting this session, and I love him. … I did not expect it to be like this. Thank you for that.”

“I usually don’t do stuff like this—come on camera,” the State College resident said. “But [the moderators and panelists] created an atmosphere where I felt welcome to share my thoughts. ... It’s always nice to see people passionate about change, especially in our community, because sometimes our community needs it the most.”

“The fact that someone stepped way out of his comfort zone, and went from peripherally viewing the ad to clicking and registering, to then allowing himself to be vulnerable and becoming a highlighted speaker at the event really demonstrates the impact programs can have,” Center for the Performing Arts Marketing and Communications Director Laura Sullivan said.

Meaningful connections

Campus collaborations and professional partnerships are important to the success of programs such as these, Center for the Performing Arts Director Sita Frederick said. Outreach with Penn State Commonwealth campuses and the State College region resulted in at least 2,600 registrants and three known watch parties, hosted by Colored Conventions Project, Penn State Mont Alto and Black Sun Studios in State College.

Frederick said the event proved that creating meaningful partnerships with the Commonwealth campuses is possible.

“My feeling was such a sense of satisfaction that I had this inkling that it would be possible to create a meaningful arts experience, on Zoom, that engaged multiple campuses,” she said.

Gabrielle Foreman, founding co-director of the Center for Digital Black Research and founding faculty director of the Colored Conventions Project, said programming collaborations, such as its first event with the Center for the Performing Arts, are beneficial to people throughout the Commonwealth.

“It not only enriches—but is essential—to the intellectual mission of the University and the communities it serves,” she said. “We are particularly delighted that our inaugural partnership features Frederick Douglass’ speech given at the 1883 National Colored Convention. Because this address is as powerful as his famous ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’ We at ColoredConventions.org were the first to have it recorded, commissioning actor Hassan El-Amin to do the honors and elevate it to its rightful historical place. It is a thrill to see Theater of War center Douglass’ powerful words in their important and community-centered programming."

Frederick said the success of the event also spoke to the misconception that there isn’t an interest in programs that bridge art with social justice.

“This was such an incredibly engaged group of people in a truly accessible arena who are clearly interested in arts and social justice,” she said. “And I think it is about the gathering space we created together and how it was designed to engage. It wasn’t just a reading by a celebrity.”

Foreman, also a Penn State professor of American literature, African-American studies and history, said she agreed that there is a place in art to explore the tough topics of social justice.

“The Center for Black Digital Research believes that public art is central to recovery in all its forms: historical recovery, cultural recovery and spiritual recovery,” she said.


The Richard Robert Brown Program Endowment provided support. Additional support was provided by these Penn State partners: College of Arts and Architecture; College of Health and Human Development; College of the Liberal Arts; Office of the Vice Provost for Commonwealth Campuses; Penn State Wilkes-Barre; Smeal College of Business; and University Libraries.

The center also acknowledges the Colored Conventions Project and Douglass Day at the Center for Black Digital Research at Penn State. Douglass Day will celebrate the birthday of Frederick Douglass with a global Black history transcribe-a-thon on Feb. 14, 2023. Visit douglassday.org for information.

Heather Longley is a communications specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts.