Black History Through Performance


For Black History Month historical figure Frederick Douglass was portrayed by Kevin McIlvaine, former Harlan High School student, actor, singer, and educator, during a special event February 11-13 at the Field Museum. Frederick Douglass was a runaway slave who eventually became an abolitionist and founder of The North Star, an anti-slavery newspaper in the 1800s.

WVON’s Cliff Kelley hosted the event. The Apostolic Church Choir of Chicago accompanied McIlvaine, singing several gospel renditions such as “Let My People Go,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “We Shall Overcome.”

McIlvaine performing as Douglass started with a story of Bill Demby, a slave who was shot to death by the plantation’s overseer. He then went into accounts of becoming a freed slave after running away, then becoming an advocate speaking out against slavery, and against the mistreatment of blacks after slavery, and finally speaking up for women’s rights before he died.

The actor fit modified speeches of Douglass’ into nearly two hours of performance in front of approximately 100 people of various ages and races. Lorise Jones came all the way from Indiana with six of her children to see the Feb. 11 performance. Jones attended one of McIlvaine’s performances a year prior, when he portrayed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Field Museum. She said she likes the way McIlvaine teaches black history because he doesn’t teach bitterness.

McIlvaine portrayed Dr. King again this past January at the Field Museum during the Dr. King four-day weekend. The focus was on the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s Chicago Freedom Movement speech that he recited July 10, 1966 at Soldier Field, protesting poor housing conditions in Chicago in front of over 50,000 people.

Ariel Capital Management, a Chicago based investment firm, sponsored the 2006 Douglass and Dr. King events. Students from Ariel Community Academy, 1119 E. 46th St., got first viewing of McIlvaine’s Dr. King performance on Jan. 12.

“We thought it was a tremendous event and a great way to expose our kids to an historic and really important [figure] in their lives,” said Matthew Yale, vice president of public affairs. “The students had a fantastic time and learned a lot. We’re thrilled to be a part of it.”

After the Dr. King presentation, McIlvaine mingled with a crowd of children answering questions and joking around with them. He later told RJ that when he looks out into the audience and sees a lot of kids, he edits his speeches even more as to keep the youths’ attention and “edu-tain” them.

McIlvaine said he portrays personalities such as Dr. King and Douglass because their messages are still relevant today and young people need to hear them. “[W]hen you look around, we still have a long way to go but we wouldn’t have gotten this far if it weren’t for men and women like Martin Luther King, Jr.”

He said his goal is to inspire youth today to hear the messages and “take a stand for what they believe is right. He said, “Integrity and dignity is what separates the boys from the men.”

In Washington, D.C., where he currently resides, McIlvaine has a program called PRIDE — Positive Reinforcement through Identity Development and Education. The program “edu-tains” by reminding people of all ages that there were men and women who made sacrifices in order to make life better for us all.

McIlvaine does not only portray historical figures. He also portrays other positive personalities like Teddy Pendergrass and Al Green. Dr. King is his most requested figure.

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