Frederick Douglass brings history to life at the Williamsburg Regional Library

Nathan Richardson, a poet, author and Frederick Douglass historian, will portray Douglass on behalf of Young Audiences Arts for Learning at the Williamsburg Regional Library on Sunday.

The group putting on the event, Young Audience Arts for Learning Virginia, is a nonprofit that brings educational art programming to children.

Christine Everly, chief executive officer for Young Audiences Arts for Learning Virginia, said the group gets a grant from the Williamsburg Art Commission that allows them to bring more of their programming to the area.

“With (the grant), we tell the arts commissioners we will be able to do (a certain) number of programs for that dollar amount,” Everly said.

While Richardson is known for his role as Douglass, he didn’t always spin a yarn woven from history. Richardson said he was encouraged to try it out by a friend, but was reluctant about the idea, and didn’t really consider it for another year.

“Once I did I went to various characters to see which one would fit my personality better, or which my personality would fit better,” Richardson said.

When Richardson came across Douglass, he felt a connection to the man.

“First of all, my appearance was closer to his, and then once I started reading his work I realized his oratory, his writing style was really close to mine from the perspective that I’m a poet and I’m a spoken word performer,” Richardson said. “I don’t think I chose Frederick Douglass. I think Frederick Douglass chose me.”

Since then, Richardson has performed as Douglass, along with his other roles in Young Audiences for the Arts Virginia, teaching children about poetry and how to read and write.

Richardson said living history performers tell the story of history in the language of the character, which he said is able to capture the imagination of someone who is not a history scholar.

“When history is told, with all due respect, from the perspective of academics, they do absolutely amazing research and I could not do Douglass if not for their work, but when they tell the story they are doing it in an academic vernacular,” Richardson said. “When living history performers do it, they are telling the story from in the vernacular of that character, which speaks directly to the imagination of the listener.”

In the past, Richardson said he has partnered with academics, where they will present their research and then he will perform as Douglass to accent their research.

Richardson said his most notable collaboration has been with a professor from Quinnipiac University who wrote about Douglass’ experiences in Ireland.

“She and I have done performances all over the country where we have given the audience both sides — both languages,” Richardson said.

One of Richardson’s favorite things about playing Douglass is the reactions he gets from children.

“I certainly get a lot of satisfaction out of having young people in my audience, inviting them on stage to read with Frederick Douglass, that’s always a big highlight of my day as Frederick Douglass,” Richardson said.

Everly said the work Richardson does as Douglass also allows younger people to understand the history and legacy of slavery in our country.

“It's easy for young people to not understand the roots and why current events, like the Confederate monuments, why people feel passionately one way or the other about that,” Everly said. “To understand what is going on today you have to understand history, and sometimes kids find history dull, and having an actor portray Frederick Douglass really brings history to life.”

Richardson added its equally important however to educate adults as well about these issues.

“Children are certainly impressionable and get excited about learning,” Richardson said. “The thing about adults is that they are sometimes apathetic — so to capture the imagination of young people and adults, (through) the vernacular of a charter in living history, is just way it goes.”

Want to go?

Frederick Douglass On Slavery and Emancipation will start at 2 p.m. Jan. 27, in the theater of the Williamsburg Regional Library at 515 Scotland St.

The event is free and recommended for children in grades K-12.

To learn more about Young Audiences Arts for Learning Virginia, visit

Heymann can be reached by phone at 757-298-5828 or on Twitter at @HeymannAmelia.

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