Nothing truly prepares one for the remarkable resemblance of the actors David Selby and Craig Wallace to the characters they portray, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass in the world premiere Necessary Sacrifices just opened at Ford’s Theatre.
Selby not only takes on the gait, the hunched shoulders and the reported pitched voice of the slain President, but he delivers stories and punch lines with the irrepressible humor and grace attributed to Lincoln by scholars over the years. Wallace, a last minute casting substitution for Douglass due to the original actor’s sudden illness, proved that the show really does go on. These two fine actors deliver the best performance that can be conjured up from a historically laden script by Richard Hellesen reflecting the actual encounters between these two icons.
The “necessary sacrifices” refer to the civil war casualties of the “colored” troops recruited to fight for the Union Army while being subjected to discriminatory practice and brutal treatment. Lincoln attempts to persuade Douglass to recruit black soldiers desperately needed to turn the tide of battle to victory. Douglass counters that Lincoln‘s shallow promises of fair treatment have fallen on deaf ears since enforcement relies on the white commanders and fellow soldiers.
Douglass’ account of the brutality is harrowing as he strongly argues the case for his countrymen, the newly freed slaves who trust him with their lives. Lincoln’s hands are tied. He can do no more than make proclamations and admits that he can lead the people only as far as they’re ready to be led.
The two historical giants engage in two dynamic exchanges and the actors give it their all. As Lincoln, Selby rises so tall you wonder if he’s on stilts. His manner and disposition are engaging and nearly irresistible as he portrays Lincoln in the throes of rebellion, trying to deal with a recalcitrant congress, mounting Union casualties and tough strategic defeats. Throughout it all, no matter what the upheaval, he bears the news as a heavy burden, deals with each setback, and yet somehow, through it all has a twinkle in his eye and a hankering to share a story. It’s a masterful performance that must be seen to be believed.
In perfect counter point is Wallace as Douglass whose ferocious countenance and booming voice could shake the mess out of misery. As Douglass, Wallace exudes a powerful presence, even when he enters in the first act as a hesitant messenger approaching “His Excellency.” Wallace relays the absolute incredulous situation of a former slave talking man-to-man with the President of the United States.
At first, their encounter seems surreal, that a man of such stature could be so open and accepting of one who represented chattel in these United States, reaching to shake his hand, serving him coffee. And how a former slave could go toe-to-toe with the most powerful man in the country. It’s a masterful exchange which could get bogged down in the details of the script were it not for Jennifer L. Nelson’s direction and the outstanding caliber of the actors. As their respective characters, they bargain, cajole, shake their fists, describe the enormous stakes at hand, the horrible reality and the limited odds for any improvement in conditions, at least in the short view.
In fact, in the second act, which moves at a better pace, Lincoln is nearly resigned to accepting he will be defeated in re-election against George McClellan, his former general, and summons Douglass for advice to keep the Union from losing ground and resorting back to slavery. By this time, Douglass approaches the President with more ease, as not only a colleague but an advisor. Their discussions demonstrate the full range of Lincoln’s attempt to salvage the country. No idea is left unturned in dealing with the “Negro problem,” including shipping them back to Africa with settlements in Liberia and Haiti as a way to avoid miscegenation, the hated concept of mixing of the races. Lincoln’s reference to John Brown as a madman evolved to respect over their discourse when Douglass defended Captain Brown as his friend.
The second act opens with Lincoln reciting the powerful Gettysburg address, with Douglass commenting on passages from the perspective of the disenfranchised which adds yet another fascinating layer to the text. The production strikingly shows how far we’ve come as a nation in dealing with some issues, yet how mired we are in others. Lincoln’s depiction of a stalemated congress, animosity among the members, showdown about state’s rights, and Douglass’ descriptions of fiscal disparities could come from today’s headlines. Still, that the country elected our current President, a man of African descent with a mixed racial heritage is a testament to how far we’ve come.
Costumes and hair design by Helen Huang and Anne Nesmith respectively add to the authentic look for both characters. Lincoln is in his tall frock coat complete with distinctive stove-pipe hat, and we see Douglass is in two sets of dapper waistcoats befitting the highly respected public speaker.
Necessary Sacrifices is a reimagining of two actual encounters and is thus heavy not only with dialog, but historical details about the conditions of the war, broken up a bit by Michael Kramer effectively playing George Sterns, a prominent merchant and advocate for recruiting black soldiers.
Director Nelson does what she can in helping this world premiere move along and not get stuck in heavy-laden history. Near the end of the first act, the two leaders even threaten to arm wrestle their way through the quagmire. Using a roaming violinist (rotating Thomas Booker and Tony Donaldson, Jr.) representing a talented young Douglass at the opening and closing of the show is such a refreshing welcome relief, the potential gimmickry is excused, especially since it portrays this often unseen artistic side of the famous leader.
Moments like that sparkle like jewels in this important production. Nelson notes in the program that these two heroes rose from obscurity to tackle nearly insurmountable issues of slavery, injustice and peace in a young torn and conflicted nation. They did so because “they perceived and valued in each other a shared belief in the potential of human beings to be generous of spirit in spite of profound differences.”
Necessary Sacrifices is a passage back in time and can help understand and appreciate the deep pervading roots stoking the political turmoil this very day, and can provide a glimpse at the prospect for hope… and peace.
Necessary Sacrifices runs thru Feb 18, 2012 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, N.W. Washington, DC.
By Richard Hellesen
Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson
Produced by Ford’s Theater
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission