Jennifer L. Nelson is the Director of Special Programming at Ford’s Theatre, and the director of their most recent production, Necessary Sacrifices. This new drama — the fourth commission by playwright Bill Hellesen for Ford’s — examines a series of historic interactions between Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln, who both find themselves at extraordinary moments in their lives and in their country’s collective promise.
In her program note on the play, Nelson writes, “This is why we are here: to tell a composite story of two men, fierce in their philosophies and steadfast in their love of humanity.” DC Theatre Scene asked Nelson for her thoughts on the production as it begins its run.
Can you talk to us about this as a new play, and why it’s of central interest to Ford’s?
We are currently in the Sesquicentennial (150th) year of the American Civil War. That includes the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect January 1, 1863. Necessary Sacrifices was commissioned to highlight and commemorate the events surrounding that landmark moment in American history and all the ensuing related developments.
At the heart of the Ford’s Theatre mission is the continued study and exploration of the Lincoln legacy. Some people think that means we only do plays about Lincoln, but what we seek is to share work that in some way illuminates the moral principles that we can glean from Lincoln’s leadership. That gives us a pretty wide spectrum to address.
Which particular aspects of this script ultimately convinced you to accept the offer to direct?
As an African American who loves history, the opportunity to work on bringing Frederick Douglass to life was an irresistible challenge. Douglass’ contribution to the Abolition Movement (and the Women’s Rights Movement) was pivotal, and yet most of us are ignorant about his actual life and career—including the fact that he met with Lincoln on two occasions in the White House. Douglass was a fascinating character: a former slave who became one of the most erudite and passionate activists of his time.
There are no transcripts of what was spoken when Lincoln and Douglass met, but Richard Hellesen has done a remarkable job of imagining their dialogue, based on copious research including Douglass’ memoirs.
What about the rehearsal process has most surprised you?
What continually surprises me about historical characters is how human they were. By that I mean that they were so like us: they were riddled with doubt and insecurities, they had great senses of humor, they struggled with various personal and professional relationships, they put their pants on one leg at a time. Yet in spite of their ordinariness they found the courage to stand up to injustice and make change.
Do you mind sharing an anecdote from rehearsal?
This might be of interest: Craig Wallace stepped into the Douglass role with only six days of rehearsal before our first audience—basically he arrived in time for tech week. He knew very little about Douglass and hadn’t even read the play. If you’re interested in seeing a truly amazing acting job accomplished on the fly, do come see this. Also seeing him in the Douglass wig is… remarkable.
What do you think is the most interesting convergence between the struggles of that period and where we are now?
It is really remarkable how relevant the issues in the play that Douglass and Lincoln discuss are. That may not be so surprising, since our play was written by a 21st century man. But the struggles with a Congress and a population divided over how to best proceed with the war has great parallels to what we see happening right now.
The second act of Necessary Sacrifices is framed with Lincoln’s re-election campaign. The rhetoric and posturing of his rivals could have been torn out of 2012 headlines. Lincoln was convinced that he would be defeated and his desperation to find a workable strategy to carry out his goal to end slavery before his term ended is much of what drove him.
Has the fact that these play’s historical characters are so well-known and recognizable impacted how you rehearse the actors?
A lot of research went into learning as much as possible about the real men’s behaviors as well as their points of view. David Selby has performed Lincoln before and his dedication to creating an accurate a portrayal is impressive.
So much has been written about Lincoln (more books written about Lincoln than anyone else!) that we knew going in that we would have to be as true to fact as possible. As I said earlier, much less is generally known about the personality of Douglass, although there is a prodigious amount of information available about him.
We were really helped by the Park Rangers at the Douglass’ home in Anacostia. Spending time where Douglass lived and breathed, slept and ate, played violin and chased his grandchildren around was instructive and inspiring.
Who is, in your opinion, the ideal audience member for this play?
Most Washingtonians should get a real kick out of the play. It’s smart and funny, pointed and moving, with great actors who make you believe you’re meeting the real people. And of course anyone who has even a passing interest in history or how modern American society and government came to be what it is should be interested in this play. It’s accessible to young people (ages junior high and up) and with a running time of under two hours, it is all-in-all an agreeable time in the theatre.