Sunday, Dec. 14
, Memphis actor/author Phil Darius Wallace
finishes his first Off-Broadway run. A revised version of Wallace's Self Made Man: The Frederick Douglass Story,
received its world premiere at the ArcLight Theatre
Self Made Man
, produced and directed by Melania Levitsky,
expands greatly on Starry Road to Freedom,
a one-man-show Wallace developed in Memphis, and performed numerous times for Shelby County school students. The new version tells the story of Douglass’ journey out of slavery and explores the personal evolution of the abolitionist leader as he encountered men such as William Lloyd Garrison and Abraham Lincoln.
Intermission Impossible: You’ve been doing these one man shows for such a long time. It’s good to see that you’re getting some real attention.
Phil Darius Wallace:
It’s been a phenomenal experience, and it all kind of started at The Orpheum.
You’ve been playing this character for years, but Self Made Man isn’t the same show as Starry Road to Freedom, is it?
No, Starry Road to Freedom
journey started back in 2001. The National Civil Rights Museum helped me put it together. That show was a 40-minute show designed for schools. Over time I did different versions of that show. I did an extended version at the old Hattiloo Theatre in 2006 that was for a public audience. and then around 2009 in 2008 I was invited to perform at Northeastern [University]. And they wanted me to do a speech by Frederick Douglass called “Self Made Man.” It’s an inspirational speech and exposed a whole new side of who Frederick Douglass was. So I started to have a great desire to get my show reproduced. I had a tough time in 2011 and 2012 as an actor, and I wanted to see what would happen if I went back to the National Civil Rights Museum
to see if they would be interested in reproducing it. But [NCRM Director of Education] Barbara Andrews, who has been very supportive of me through the years, just happened to be on vacation. So I’m driving down Main and I see the Orpheum over on my left. And I think, Let me give Alice [Roberts]
a call, maybe she’ll help. She’s not going to answer the phone, but let me try anyway. One ring, Alice picks up. And that started this journey. Asked if she’d be interested in helping me, and she said she would because they’re interested in producing their own shows. It was a perfect fit. The Orpheum got behind it and did a run there for about 6000 students. 1,500 a day. And then Melania Levitsky, a founder of Nikita Productions and a friend of mine, flew in to see the show. She enjoyed the show, and we talked and then a few months after that I got a call from her saying she wants to produce the show in New York. And that started a brand new journey.
Did you build off the original Starry Road script or did you start all over from scratch.
Not quite from scratch. I’d say about 85% of the material is new. 15% is excerpts from the old show, Starry Road to Freedom
. In Starry Road
I played only about 5 characters. In this one I play 14. We go beyond Frederick Douglass’ life as a slave. Starry Road
ends once he’s free. This one goes beyond that to his encounter with William Lloyd garrison, John Brown, and President Lincoln. I also played around with the idea that he was longing to know who his father was. There are also other elements. Douglass read Shakespeare deeply and he quoted Shakespeare in his speeches. So, in the show, I thought it would be interesting to have Shakespeare fall out of the mouths of some of these characters, based on where they stood in history, and that seems to have
worked very well.
Tell me a little bit about working at the ArcLight Theatre
The ArcLight theatre is a very intimate. It’s only 99 seats and that gives me an opportunity to interact a lot with the audience. The set is minimal but really cool, and the costumes are phenomenal. And I get a chance to wear a wig.
You’ve never really worn the Frederick Douglass wig.
I haven’t been able to do it in all these years. And the wig is great. The producers have been great. It’s a great team and a dream come true.
We’ve had one sell out day. Most of the run has been a lot of half and ¾-full houses. Last Tuesday and Wednesday were kind of small. But for the most part it’s been good. And we’re anticipating that the final week will be pretty large. It’s my first time performing here, so you wonder if you’re going going to walk out and find nobody’s there. But then the people start coming in.
Has publicity been good?
A publicist for the show had me on Here & Now which is a locally produced show for ABC in New York. And we’ve had a lot of radio interviews, which is how people have been hearing about it. And posters and flyers.
Of course the great thing about performing in New York is it’s a savvy audience, and you get a chance to show your stuff to other folks in the industry. Has this opportunity made any new opportunities?
I was fortunate enough to sign with a television and film agent here. You know, I have three kids, an 11-year-old, a 10-year-old, and a 5-year old and, as an actor, I have to find a lot of work other than just theater. So I think there will be some back and forth between New York and Memphis. I have so much appreciation for Morgan Fox and Craig brewer, both of which have been able to work with. And Tennessee Shakespeare, Voices of the South, Playhouse, Playback Memphis, the Hattiloo Theatre, and all the groups I’ve been able to work with over time. But I am literally trying to take care of my wife and children. I have an agent and have already been in front of people who have seen the show and who want me to come back for pilot season.
Like you say, this all started with the Orpheum. Will you be involved in any way when they open the new education building?
I’m not sure how I’m going to be connected, but I do know we’re going to try to bring this new version of the show back to the Orpheum in 2015 or 2016. Alice has been a wonderful supporter and I’m so thankful they trusted me to take their resources to build this show.