Two Men, Two Summers and One War
In Act I Craig Wallace in the role of Frederick Douglass states it plain that ‘emancipation is not abolition’ and that he believes the Civil War is being fought for several reasons but the abolition of slavery and full equality of Negro people isn’t one of them. The drama unfolds from there, in the world premiere staging of Necessary Sacrifices, a work written by Richard Hellesen and commissioned by the Ford’s Theatre Society as a part of their Lincoln Legacy Project. The goal of the five year artistic and educational initiative is to spark dialogue and engage people of different viewpoints in thoughtful discussions around issues of tolerance and understanding.
The script by Hellesen brings just that, two differing viewpoints about the cause and lasting effects of the Civil War on the United States and all that dwell within. Necessary Sacrifices takes artistic license and allows the audience to sit inside the office of Abraham Lincoln in the summers of 1863 and 1864 – during the height of the Civil War – and watch what the two of the documented meetings between Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, wonderfully played by David Selby may have been like. The production is truly about the script and the ideas and challenges that both men wrestled with. Lincoln was charged with holding together a young nation during the most difficult time it had ever faced, rooted in deep feelings about dealing with a very difficult political and social issue. As the President of the United States he walked a thin line balancing his beliefs with those of his advisors, politicos and even the Constitution. During several scenes it weighs heavy on Lincoln as he explains to Douglass that unlike most men, he doesn’t have the burden to worry about just his house, for his responsibility is to be accountable for all the homes in America. Lincoln offers at one point, “what I believe is secondary to what I must do.’
Douglass still challenges Lincoln to act swiftly and with strength to use his executive powers to bring about change rather than wait for it. Ironically, when Douglass made his visits to the President’s office, he was just miles away from where he once lived as a young slave. Lincoln and Douglass were two distinctly different men with often two different answers to the questions of why, how and when as it related to the Civil War but the playwright suggests that over time they did both agree on an answer of a ‘what’ for the end of the Civil War.
The minimal set, lighting and flow in direction provided by Jennifer L. Nelson create an appropriate incubator for the thoughts and themes to live and grow on stage and in the minds of the audience. Sprinkled with humor and good storytelling the script lends itself well particularly to Selby who has played Lincoln before at Ford’s Theatre with great acclaim.
Necessary Sacrifices runs through February 18. Following the production, on February 21 the Ford’s Theatre Campus will open the Center for Education and Leadership. Located directly across the street from the theatre, the Center will feature several floors of permanent and rotating exhibits that look at Lincoln’s death and evolving legacy.