Category: Archive

The Black & The Green: Douglass’s living legacy

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

“You have to perform it in a way that’s gripping and funny. Entertainment comes first,” said the Dublin actor and writer. “People buy their tickets, so they deserve that.
“You can fuse in the political point you want to make after that,” he said.
This is from an artist who is quite comfortable making a point, as he does with his acclaimed “The Cambria,” which will open at the Irish Arts Center next week and will run in rotation with Roger Guenveur Smith’s “Frederick Douglass Now.”
“I always ask: why do something? Why perform? I always have to answer that question for myself first,” O’Kelly said.
He is one of several prominent Irish-based artists who sponsor events by Afri (or Action from Ireland), which focuses on international human rights, peace and justice issues and is well known for its annual Famine Walk in Mayo. The actor also takes a stand on the reception that immigrants get when they come into Ireland, a theme that will get an airing on the stage of the Irish Arts Center in coming weeks.
“The Cambria,” like Smith’s play, is about the great African-American orator and writer Frederick Douglass, and specifically the trip the former runaway slave made to Famine-era Ireland and Britain via the fastest ship of its time.
Douglass’s fame as a best-selling writer in his 20s brought with it the danger of capture by his former owner, which was one reason he stayed away from America for two years. Another was that he was very much in demand as a public speaker, particularly in Protestant churches.
One of his closest allies was Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, who had led the successful campaign for Catholic Emancipation.
“I don’t think that we’ve given enough credit to O’Connell as an internationalist,” O’Kelly said. “He was very steadfast in his opposition to slavery and also to anti-Semitism.”
As for the upcoming New York production, the actor and writer said: “I think it’s a great combination. We’re really delighted to be part of something like that.”
He last appeared at the 51st Street venue in his one-man show “Catalpa,” which the New York Times described as a “fine feat of storytelling.”
When he first performed at the Irish Arts Center 20 years ago, he’d already been writing and acting for a decade. O’Kelly, though, spent the first few years of his working life in the civil service. His early involvement with theater began somewhat informally. “When I started off, you walked into it. You didn’t even know you were in it,” he recalled.
“I still feel that I’m only starting. Most of the time that’s a good feeling,” he said, with a laugh.
The arts, though, are the first to get cut when things aren’t going well in the economy.
“We’re battening down the hatches,” he said.
Yet, it’s precisely the time when the work of artists, writers, actors and musicians are most needed, he believes.
“We’re citizens first, before we’re economic units,” O’Kelly said. “Thankfully, we’re richer organisms than just consumers.”

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