Lincoln, Douglass square off in Ford’s Theatre radio play ‘Necessary Sacrifices’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Necessary Sacrifices' (Part 1)

Two transformational American figures collide at Ford’s Theatre, which launches the new radio play “Necessary Sacrifices” streaming on the theatre website starting on Thursday.

Written by acclaimed playwright Richard Hellesen, the story recounts a pair of historic White House meetings between President Abraham Lincoln (Paul Morella) and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (Craig Wallace, who previously played the role at Ford’s in 2012).

“Ford’s did a series of readings during the pandemic and we did a reading of ‘Necessary Sacrifices’ that was extremely popular, so [Ford’s Theatre Director] Paul Tetreault thought we should remount it for the upcoming season,” Wallace told WTOP.

The first meeting between Lincoln and Douglass occurred in the summer of 1863, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation as the Civil War ravaged the nation. Douglass showed up uninvited and waited in a line of all white guests who had scheduled appointments.

“Douglass was really frustrated because he was recruiting Black soldiers for the Union Army and there was a decree that any Union soldier caught by the Confederacy would be killed,” Wallace said. “These men had to go through a period of adjustment to learn to respect each other. Once they learned that, they couldn’t engage in debate that would influence our country going forward.”

What was Lincoln’s mindset during that first meeting?

“They come together initially from very opposite perspectives, feeling each other out,” Morella said. “Douglass didn’t think Lincoln was working fast enough or had his priorities in the right place, while Lincoln was looking at the bigger picture. There were more variables involved in terms of leading the country and work within the confines of the constitution and all the other characters involved.”

The second meeting occurred in the summer of 1864 after the Gettysburg Address.

“Lincoln hadn’t lived up to some of the pledges that he had offered to Douglass the first time around in terms of commissioning [Black soldiers] as an officer,” Morella said. “Lincoln was on the verge of thinking the next election he would lose. He was a goner, so the trials and tribulations of the presidency had taken a toll. He was tired, he was old, he had aged a considerable amount.”

How had Douglass’ perspective changed by the second meeting?

“Can I trust this guy? Can I work with this guy?” Wallace said. “He goes in believing they will have a debate. It gets heated, they’re not buddies, maybe by the end they’re buddies, but in the second meeting, there were really significant promises that weren’t kept. … This time, Lincoln had invited Douglass, so he’s coming to the White House with a list of grievances he’s ready to throw down.”

After the events of the play, there was also a brief third meeting in 1865.

“They actually met right after the second Inaugural Address,” Morella said. “Lincoln had that famous line saying, ‘Here comes my friend Douglass!’ … Lincoln says at the very end, ‘We’ll talk soon about all this.’ Of course, this was the last time because of what happened shortly thereafter.”

As the site of his assassination, Ford’s Theatre is a fitting place to produce this play.

“To play Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, it doesn’t get any bigger than that,” Morella said. “But once you get beyond that, it’s really about these two people and how they interact. … What’s universal about them, what brings them together, what separates them. … They’re people with inclination, desires, hopes, dreams, expectations — and it becomes a human interaction.”

Ironically, there wasn’t much human interaction during the recording of the play due to COVID-19 restrictions, but director Psalmayene 24 found creative ways to bring the two actors together.

“We rehearsed via Zoom, all of that time being tested for COVID,” Wallace said. “Then when it came time to record, we went into Ford’s Theatre and they had fashioned two separate booths for us. We could see each other on iPads, but then we recorded our tracks. We were never together!”

“You have to summon different kinds of sensibilities to be able to communicate when you don’t have that ability to look and get the back-and-forth rapport,” Morella said. “Do I try to look at the iPad and try to connect with you? Or should I just not look at all and just hear and feel the vibes in an attempt to communicate that way? … You really do reach more to make a connection.”

The radio play is streaming on the Ford’s Theatre website through April and May.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Necessary Sacrifices' (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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