Violence versus Pacifism, Brown versus Douglass: The Raid at Theater Alliance

By Angela Carroll

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene. 

“Everyone in this play is dead,” Harriet Tubman (Tiffany Byrd) announces minutes into the first act. Frederick Douglass (Marquis D. Gibson), John Brown (Nicklas Aliff), Henry Kagi (Josh Adams), Emperor (Dylan J. Fleming), John Brown Jr. (Robert Bowen Smith), and Mahala Doyle (Moira Todd),  speak directly to the audience from seats among us, and introduce their story about the 1865 raid on Harpers Ferry. Idris Goodwin’s, The Raid, directed by Colin Hoyde, makes its regional debut at Theater Alliance. The masterful historical drama blends poetic prose, contemporary choreography and excerpts from legendary abolitionist debates.

The Raid portrays a series of discussions between John Brown and Frederick Douglass that occur over many years about how best to upend the institution of slavery in the United States. Brown was a radical Christian who believed it was his mission and calling to engage in armed rebellions against individual and institutional proponents of slavery. Brown was later hanged for murdering plantation owners.  Douglass was a scholar who escaped enslavement and believed in the possibilities of political reform. Though Brown is adamant that Douglass should take the position of leader in the armed rebellions against slavery, believing that a former slave was better suited to lead other slaves out of bondage than a white man, Douglass repeatedly declines. “Stories are the catalyst for empathy,” Douglass explains to an agitated Brown, “I am a former slave who thinks, breathes and lives. This is my resistance.”  By observing their passionate debates, intercut by flashbacks that help to contextualize their encounters, we learn about the victories and devastating losses that occurred during the battle to end slavery.

The intimate black box theater of the Anacostia Playhouse is an incredibly immersive space.  No matter where you are seated, you feel as though you are a part of the performance; you can see the sweat on the actors’ back and brow, feel the reverberation as fists thud against flesh during fight scenes.  Epic battles and tense interactions balance dialogue heavy scenes. The ensemble does not rely on many props or intricate costumes. The styling was contemporary rather than staunchly reflective of fashion from the period.

The precision of the fight choreography, designed by Cliff Williams III and the talent of the ensemble captures the urgency of abolitionists during key moments before the election of Abraham Lincoln and the start of the Civil War. The cast presented dynamic characterizations of famous and lesser known historical figures. 

Byrd’s Harriet Tubman is stoic, blunt and mysterious as she relays insights and forewarnings about the future. (Tubman suffered a traumatic head injury from her former slave owner that caused her to have blackouts, and the gift of premonition.)  Henry Kagi’s (Josh Adams) anxious paranoia provides a striking contrast with the tenacious confidence of his mentor John Brown.  Gibson portrays Douglass with a soft-spoken authority that balances the timid shyness of his protégé, Emperor (Dylan J. Fleming).  Though brief, the portrayals of John Brown Jr. (Robert Bowen Smith), and Mahala Doyle (Moira Todd), the widow of a plantation owner Brown’s militia killed, are also memorable. Beautiful light and scenic design by Megan Thrift and Jessica Cancino, and an atmospheric score by Kevin Alexander, punctuate major beats in the play and facilitate a deeper immersion into the story.

The Raid is well written, wonderfully acted and a genuinely enlightening historical drama.


The Raid. Written by Idris Goodwin. Directed by Colin Hovde. Featuring: Josh Adams, Nicklas Aliff, Tiffany Byrd, Dylan J. Fleming, Marquis D. Gibson, Robert Bowen Smith, Moira Todd. Assistant Director, Dylan Morrison Myers. Scenic Designer, Jessica Cancino. Lighting Designer, Megan Thrift. Sound Design, Kevin Alexander. Fight Director, Cliff Williams III. Stage Manager, Simone Baskerville. Produced by Theater Alliance.

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