Last July, Oak Park-based actor Kevin Theis was en route to Jewel when Frederick Douglass came on the radio. Not, obviously, the actual 19th-century abolitionist who escaped slavery and became an internationally known orator. Theis was hearing Douglass’ descendants on National Public Radio, marking Independence Day by reading passages from Douglass’ 1852 speech “What, to the Slave, is the 4th of July.”
Theis had read the speech before, but in the middle of a summer of global social unrest, it hit harder. When he got home, he set to finding another audio version of it, assuming there would be “dozens.” He couldn’t find a single one.
The experience sent him down a rabbit hole. What other history-making speeches only existed as words on a page? There were many. From Jane Addams to Robespierre, Theis found many of the best speeches history has to offer simply weren’t available in spoken form.
So Theis decided to do something about that. Under his Fort Raphael Publishing Company imprint, Theis is releasing two new audiobooks featuring a total of 14 notable speeches, Douglass’ 4th of July oration among them. History’s Greatest Speeches Vol. 1 and 2 are available on Audible.com, with four more seven-speech volumes in the works.
“Letting these speeches sit on the shelf unheard and unheralded is just tragic to me,” Theis said. “I feel so proud that the artists on this project are giving people the chance to hear them.”
In addition to Douglass, the first two volumes include dramatized readings of speeches by Socrates (voice by Darren Stephens), Sojourner Truth (voice by Rochelle Young), Eugene V. Debbs (voice by Kevin Theis), W.E.B. DuBois (voice by Rosney Mauger), Susan B. Anthony (voice by Siiri Scott) and Queen Elizabeth I (voice by Sara Nichols) among them. Theis’ sprawling cast includes actors from New Zealand to Chicago. The material is all public domain — there will be no Kardashian monologues — but seemingly limitless. The next volumes will include speeches by Nelson Mandela, Moses, Cicero (voice by Brad Armacost), Jane Addams (voice by Diane Sintich) and Chief Speckled Snake, among others.
Theis isn’t new to audiobooks. From the confines of Fort Raphael, he’s recorded some 300 audiobooks. “It’s basically a blanket fort, but it gets the job done,” he said of the recording studio (featuring a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle blanket) he created from a basement closet.
“Usually when I do audiobooks it’s all about the money. But this project was different. I wanted to put something out into the world that is potentially important. It’s like Shakespeare is great on the page, but he’s meant to be on stage, acted out, right? I feel the same way about these speeches,” Theis said.
The project, Theis said, might not have come together so quickly had it not been for the pandemic.
“I am looking forward to the time when I can call up actors to do projects like this and they turn me down because they’re too busy,” he said. “But in the meantime, I am so grateful to be able to create this. Not a single actor turned me down. Everybody had time, because we’ve all been at home and there’s so little work.”
Theis wanted to capture the time and place of the speeches, as well as their words. A mournful, hollow piping precedes Chief Speckled Snake’s (voice by Leandro Cano) letter to Andrew Jackson. Raging tempests blow as Moses (played by veteran Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum) delivers the Commandments. Charles I’s final words (voice by Ronald Keaton) are punctuated by the whoosh and slice of a guillotine. (“Google ‘guillotine sounds’ and you’ll get a disturbing number of them,” Theis said.)
Hearing the context behind the speeches in the form of audio re-creations provides a context written words alone cannot, said L.A.-based actor Amir Abdullah (also the voice in many of Rick Riordan’s audiobooks) who plays Douglass in Volume 1, and Nelson Mandela in Volume 2.
“This humanizes these leaders in a way we don’t get from merely reading their speeches. It gets us to understand that they were human. Fallible. And trying to fight for something positive, just as the best of us are,” Abdullah said.
Not all of the speeches Theis considered made the cut. Margaret Sanger was axed because she believed, among other things, that “the unfit” should not be allowed to reproduce. “I gave my wife one of Sanger’s speeches and she was furious,” Theis said. “She was like, ‘Do you know what this woman believed?’ So, yeah, no to Sanger.
“Which isn’t to say we don’t have villains. I have [French revolutionary] Robespierre (voice by Paul Stroili) giving this terrible, terrible speech about virtue and terror — and you hear it knowing two years later they cut his head off.”