Dressed in a black suit, with a salt and pepper mane fanned around a stern countenance, Tony Award-winning performing artist André De Shields closely resembled the great American statesman Frederick Douglass when he performed on stage in Manhattan last winter.

Gripping shackles and spouting the tribulations of enslavement in character as a newly freed yet embittered Mr. Douglass, the actor not only looked like the historic reformer, but also seemed to embody the man’s vacillating spirit, lifted by the taste of freedom but still carrying the weight of enduring inequality.

During the February premiere of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: From Douglass to Deliverance, Mr. De Shields’s self-crafted one-man show, the actor and the audience grappled with the ugly, rejoiced in the progress and looked toward the betterment of race relations in American history.

Mr. De Shields, who has long played leading roles on Broadway and the silver screen, performed Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory during Black History Month for a celebratory audience at the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center in New York. This week he is in retreat from his bustling, brightly lit Broadway stomping ground in sleepy Chilmark to refine his first-ever solo production during a four-day workshop at the Yard. Mr. De Shields will perform the reworked show at the up-Island artist haven four times, beginning tonight and ending on Labor Day.

“The artistic focus of this is to deliver a catharsis to the audience because as great as this country is, we have yet to seriously take on the issue of race,” says Mr. De Shields, 63, sitting hunched in a white hat and long, loose-fitting jean shorts.

He adds, “What I’ve discovered is that when people have the opportunity to discuss race in the framework of entertainment, we are much more liable to open up because of what I call the Mary Poppins approach to theatre: a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. So the song, the dance, the acting — that’s the sugar. While you are tasting its sweetness, it covers the fact that you are also ingesting a lot of medicine.”

Combining dance, music and theatre, the 57-minute historically-based production opens with Mr. De Shields dancing a ballet as a slave in tattered clothes — a scene that epitomizes the age-old perception of African Americans as three-fifths of a human being. He next portrays Mr. Douglass upon emancipation as a mature, educated and resentful reformer. The show then recounts the stirred political mood of the nation during the civil rights movement. The production closes with a familiar image: the inauguration of an African American man in the White House.

The show is nontraditional, made up of four acts that are in many ways disconnected. Mr. De Shields flips through more than a century of history while also flopping between characters. But the work is sewn together by an unbroken stream of emotion. It is contextualized and paced by a soundtrack that features Joan Baez’s We Shall Overcome and James Taylor’s Shed a Little Light.

“I find it liberating,” Mr. De Shields says about performing a piece full of darkness and anger as much as hope and achievement. “The demons that would have lived inside of me [if I had lived in Douglass’s time] and maybe made me become resentful and bitter, I can exorcise and leave in a pool of sweat on the stage. I can wear that mask and then after the show I can be at ease. That’s the great thing about theatre. It’s cleansing. It’s therapeutic. It’s healing.”

The Yard executive director Wendy Taucher invited Mr. De Shields to workshop the production after viewing it in February in Manhattan.

“It’s very edgy,” Ms. Taucher says. “It’s quite different from most one-man shows. It doesn’t romanticize the character.”

She added: “I’m not really interested in politics in theatre unless it’s good theatre as well. But André is a force of nature on stage. He is one of the great actors. Period.”

Mr. De Shields says he chose to workshop his solo project on the Vineyard because the Island gives him a comfort zone for creativity and innovation.

“There is no privacy in New York,” he says. “People would be writing critical reviews of it already before it has a chance to get its legs. Here, at the Yard, where the mission is experimentation and support of the artist and there is really no sense of failure or success, there are no critics to prejudge it. I can focus on the artistry and later, when it’s ready, invite the press and the public.”

Mr. De Shields hopes to perform a polished version of the piece during Black History Month next year in New York.

And while he thinks that the contemporary audience is prime to be struck with a theatrical work that delves into race relations of the past and present, many of his colleagues have dismissed the notion, saying a piece like Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory has little relevance now that the country has elected an African American man as President. “Oh, I thought we were through with that,” they have told him of the work’s subject.

Mr. De Shields disagrees. The opinion that America is cleansed of bigotry in the age of Obama is naïve, he says. “No, we’re not through with anything — we’re only just beginning. The fact that there is an African American president in the White House only means that we can begin the process of healing. Through theatre like this, that process commences.”

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: From Douglass to Deliverance, opens tonight with a dessert and champagne reception at 8 p.m. at the Yard off Middle Road in Chilmark. Tickets are $50 for general seating, $100 for premium seating and $25 for seniors and those under 30. There are two shows on Saturday: a free family matinee at 4 p.m., and another show at 8 p.m. There is one show on Monday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $50 for premium seating and $15 for seniors and those under 30. For details or reservations, call 598-645-9662 ,or visit dancetheyard.org.