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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Lincoln-Douglass debate at Ford's Theatre

Craig Wallace is Frederick Douglass in Necessary Sacrifices at Ford's Theatre/Laura Keene

A serious "conversation" between two American heroes, President Abraham Lincoln (David Selby) and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (Craig Wallace), is occurring nightly through Saturday at Ford's Theatre in a play called Necessary Sacrifices.

It is a world's premiere, written by Richard Hellesen who was commissioned by Ford's to create a play for the celebration of this month's opening of the Center for Education and Leadership located across the street.

Hellesen based his drama on two documented sessions between Lincoln and Douglass.
 David Selby is Abraham Lincoln in Necessary Sacrifices/Laura Keene

Everyone knows who President Lincoln was, but how many are familiar with Mr. Douglass? Not only did he work to abolish slavery, but he was an early supporter of women's rights and in 1848, the only African-American present at the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York.  (The Frederick Douglass home is at 1411 W Street SE in Washington.)
The specific Civil War period in focus for Sacrifices is chiefly August, 1863 and August, 1864. Mr. Douglass is disappointed by the president's policies and tries to convince him that not only is emancipation critical to national health, but the new role of blacks in the U.S. is vital, too.
In dialogue in two acts, the two converse, and the president explains to Douglass the political process and the evolution of public opinion.  Selby's and Wallace's looks, demeanor, and superb acting give undeniable credence to their characters who truly make American history come alive on stage.

Jennifer L. Nelson, the director, writes in program notes that the two Civil War leaders discovered a "common vision" in each other, sharing a "belief in the potential of human beings to be generous of spirit in spite of profound differences." Would that words of yesteryear rang on Capitol Hill today.

Adding to the play's aura is Civil War music and a sad melody composed by John Gromada which is sprinkled throughout the production and expertly played on violin by Thomas Booker or Tony Donaldson, Jr. (depending upon the night of the performance).
The lighting is dramatic (Dan Covey), and the backdrop is a tranquil floor-to-ceiling landscape painting of clouds and sky in heavenly peach, lavender and blue which creates a dichotomy in a time of radical upheaval, where gunfire is sporadically heard in the background to remind all present of war's death and destruction.
Once a portion of the stage with the president's desk and chair move forward, and large white rectangular windows drop, the stage is set (by James Kronzer) for conversation between the two in the president's office.

Makeup by Anne Nesmith is worthy of a Helen Hayes nomination.

It is eerie and remarkable at the same time to sit in Ford's Theatre, to look up at the box where the president and Mrs. Lincoln sat April 14, 1865 the night of his assassination, and realize you are there watching a play about him.
The play is recommended for ages 13 and up. Hurry! On a Monday night, the theatre was packed.  It is easy to see how this play will travel for hundreds of performances.

What: Necessary Sacrifices
When: Every night at 7:30 p.m. now through February 18, 2012
Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth St, NW, Washington, DC 20004
Admission: Prices begin at $32.20. Check here for possible discounts.
For more information: 202-347-4833
Metro station: Metro Center, Gallery Place, or Archives-Navy Memorial

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