For Gambrills resident Bill Grimmette, portrayal of Frederick Douglass pays homage to a pioneer of justice

The Baltimore Sun

Dressed in a frock coat and vest, Bill Grimmette dons an untamed gray wig and salt-and-pepper mustache and beard to complete his physical transformation.

But looking the part is only the beginning.

Replicating the considerable oratorical skills of Frederick Douglass presents another level of challenge altogether, one the Gambrills resident has 20 spent years mastering through his work as a living history dramatist.

Grimmette will perform Saturday at the Crofton Community Library as the Marylander who rose up from slavery to become an abolitionist leader and famous speaker. The free program, called “Seeking Justice: 2018,” will commemorate the 200th anniversary of Douglass’ birth in 2018.

For most people, there’s still much to be learned about Douglass’ life and legacy, says Grimmette, a retired Army major.

This includes those who may think they already know a lot about the Talbott County native whose exact birth date was never recorded and who never attended school, he said.

Grimmette should know. The 74-year-old actor — who served in Vietnam and Korea and spent his last years of military service at the Pentagon — continues to read books and articles by and about Douglass, even though he’s been portraying him for decades.

“The man was just so fascinating,” he said. “I can’t get enough of him.”

Grimmette, who’s been acting for 50 years, has been especially in demand this year in Maryland and neighboring states for his convincing impersonation of Douglass, who died in 1895 at age 77.

His portrayals — which also have included re-enactments of Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin Banneker and W.E.B. DuBois — are billed as Chataugua shows, in which actors delivers monologues as historical figures and stay in character to field audience questions.

The Chataugua events, derived from a performance style that originated in upstate New York in the 1870s, are sponsored by Maryland Humanities, a nonprofit based in Baltimore.

Judy Dobbs, program officer with Maryland Humanities, said Grimmette’s performances are so impressive because he crafts his portrayals meticulously.

“Bill is totally immersed in Frederick Douglass and in his time,” said Dobbs, who has worked with the actor since 1995. “And he’s so good at communicating with people of all ages; he doesn’t talk down to kids, he engages them.”

Angela Nambiar, multicultural programming and outreach liaison for the Anne Arundel County Public Library, said audiences come to believe Grimmette is Douglass.

“He’s a fantastic actor and we’re the lucky ones who got him,” she said.

Grimmette’s hour-long library presentation on Saturday will be preceded by a 20-minute concert by the Sounds of Joshua Community Praise Choir performing songs about equality and justice, Nambiar said.

Audiences of his time were riveted by Douglass, who changed his name at age 20 from Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey to elude slave chasers after escaping from Baltimore to freedom in New York.

“This was in part due to his stature, since he was 6-foot-3, and the fact that he was good-looking,” Grimmette said.

Douglass had wide appeal, but it was mainly the content of his speeches, delivered with passion and drama, that enraptured throngs who came to hear him speak on abolishing slavery and other issues of the day, he said.

“Frederick Douglass had a sonorous voice and a commanding presence that made him one of the greatest celebrities of the 19th century,” the actor said.

“He knew how to make audience members laugh, cry and shout, and he was invited to give speeches by presidents!” he said emphatically. “That’s no small thing.”

Grimmette was born in Alabama and graduated from high school in 1962, when the Jim Crow laws that reinforced segregation in the South were still in effect. He joined the Army that same year.

In 1968, he decided to enroll in an acting conservatory in Indiana, where he was stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison. He was shocked to be admitted, since the concept of improvisation had to be explained to him during his audition.

“I showed up in uniform and was told to portray a homeless man. Then the director told me to first ‘take off that stupid coat,’” he recalled. “I quickly realized she was purposely provoking me.”

It worked.

“I really didn’t know what the world held for me when I was 24 and a lieutenant in the Army,” he said. “But when I saw that the people watching me act were in tears, in that moment I knew who I was supposed to be.”

Grimmette was 37 when he retired from the Army, so he had the time and energy to pursue a second career as a stage actor. But he soon felt the profession was too regimented for him.

“After 20 years in the Army, I was not going through basic training again,” he said.

Yet the appeal of telling stories before an audience stuck with him after he gave it a try, and so he gravitated toward the wider latitude storytelling permits him as an actor.

“I don’t know if my ability is innate,” Grimmette said, “but coming out of the South and the Jim Crow era, I had [learned] to have a story ready at all times to explain why I was where I was.”

His appreciation for Douglass centers on the orator’s argument that “divisiveness allows tyranny to reign.”

“Douglass takes his argument against slavery right to the heart of the Constitution,” he said. “He said slavery was raping the country of its energy and bogging down the nation.”

Douglass was seeking justice — and he didn’t mean bringing someone to justice, which has a different connotation, he explained.

“Justice is being able to walk down the street and be treated with respect, without needing anyone to come to your defense,” Grimmette said, drawing a parallel to the incidents involving some African Americans in America today.

“That’s what Douglass was seeking,” he said, “and that’s why I love the man.”

If You Go

Bill Grimmette’s presentation and discussion of Frederick Douglass begins at 2 p.m. in the meeting room of the Crofton branch of the Anne Arundel County Public Library, 1681 Riedel Road. The event is free. For information, go to aacpl.net or call 410-222-7915.

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