What's Tony Thinking

Great Play at Seattle’s Taproot Theater

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“Necessary Sacrifices,” now nearing the end of it’s run at Seattle’s Taproot Theater on 85th, just off Greenwood, is terrific. It is a theatrical workout, of the best sort, for the mind and the heart.

Written by Richard Hellesen, “Necessary Sacrifices,” is based on the two encounters (at the White House) between Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. It had its premier at Washington D. C.’s Ford Theater, where Lincoln was shot in 1865.

The dramatic tension is high as Douglas pushes Lincoln to make a number of policy steps that will put flesh on the bones, so to speak, of “The Emancipation Proclamation.” Lincoln faces the elected leader’s dilemma — how far can he go and maintain support? How fast can he push on freedom and justice for black Americans and meet his primary goal of maintaining the Union?

For Douglas, Lincoln is not going far enough or fast enough. Time and again, Douglas is portrayed as instructing Lincoln on dimensions of the issues that Lincoln has either not thought through or tried to avoid. Lincoln, to his credit, is portrayed as open to argument and persuasion.

Lincoln is played as a man of great wit, constantly making wry jokes — most often at his own expense. Only in rare moments do we see the melancholy Lincoln that is perhaps our more usual picture of him.

So, it is a classic debate between the radical and idealist, Douglas, and the reformer and realist, Lincoln. It is as contemporary as present debates over health care or immigration. Do you push the ideal solution or something that takes a step in the right direction but falls short of the ideal?

As such, it captures one of the dilemmas of leadership. Leaders can get “seduced” by their more radical supporters and get too far out in front of their constituency. There’s the old adage for leaders, “Don’t get too far out in front of the people — they’ll think you’re the enemy and shoot you.” It wasn’t long in Lincoln’s case before that was sadly, tragically, true.

That said, it may be inaccurate to describe Douglas as a supporter of Lincoln. He is far more critical than supportive, both in person and in print.

Some of the most powerful moments of the play come when the two connect as fathers. Lincoln has recently lost his beloved son, Willie. Douglas has lost a daughter. And Douglas¬†has two sons serving in one of the “colored” regiments of the Union army. Lincoln’s remaining son has been kept from military service by his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln. But both men know the pain of loss.

Taproot’s cast is superb. And by the way, Taproot has a 50% off special on tickets for those who are going to Taproot for the first time. If you haven’t been there, the theater is quite intimate, with seats on three sides of the stage both at the floor level and in the balcony above.

The resemblance of the actor (Ted Rooney of Portland) playing Lincoln to the man himself is amazing and haunting. At times I felt I was seeing the real Abraham Lincoln right before my eyes.

Listening to the Lincoln/ Douglas conversations/ debates it is hard not to think of our own times and of leaders who seem, by comparison, so sadly bereft of such vision or principles. Not only that, both Lincoln and Douglas were such articulate men. One mourns the loss of capacity on the part of contemporary leaders to use the English language in grand and inspiring terms.

So, if you are a Seattle-based reader and you can make it work, get yourself to Taproot before the show closes. It is definitely worth it.

 

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