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Across the country, lots of theaters mark the shortest month of the year as an occasion to put August Wilson’s name on their marquees. Or Lorraine Hansberry’s. Or, if a city is lucky, a current black playwright like Suzan-Lori Parks or Terrell McCraney.
Washington is a lucky city year-round: We don’t need Black History Month to see people of color onstage in complex, satisfying roles. (Fela! at Shakespeare and Trouble in Mind at Arena Stage are just two of this season’s examples.) All the same, February just happens to be the month where, inevitably, some local theaters program according to the diversity calendar. Both Ford’s Theatre, that bastion of Civil War-era dramaturgy, and MetroStage, a scrappy Alexandria theatrical outpost, have chosen to celebrate Black History Month by producing shows about famous black Americans, thinking, perhaps rightly, that a good way to get butts in seats at new plays is to put enigmatic characters onstage.
As both shows demonstrate, however, fascinating lives are not surefire fodder for a fascinating two and a half hours of theater. In Necessary Sacrifices, Ford’s has assembled two charismatic Americans—Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass—and saddled them with pedantic public policy dialogue only a history buff could love. In Josephine Tonight, MetroStage may have itself a show with legs, but it will take a few tweaks before this musical about vaudeville dancer Josephine Baker lives up to its showstopping subject.
History records that Douglass and Lincoln met just twice for extended tête-à-têtes. Why not make a play imagining these meetings? Because they got together to discuss matters of great historical wonkiness. In Act 1 of Necessary Sacrifices, Lincoln implores Douglass to help recruit more freedmen to fight in Union forces, while Douglass would rather the army provide an escape route for Southern slaves. Neither plan comes to fruition. So in frustration, Lincoln invites Douglass back to the White House in Act 2 to discuss whether the Emancipation Proclamation can be reversed if George B. McLellan is elected president.
Which—spoiler alert—he isn’t.
So while in 1864 formidable matters were at stake for the nation, no stakes are raised in Richard Hellesen’s play, which is essentially a two man-show. (Michael Kramer makes a brief appearance as a different cabinet member at the start of each act in an attempt to clarify the given circumstances.) James Kronzer has created a stately White House façade covered with a celestially suggestive backdrop of clouds. When David Selby initially rolls forward, sitting behind a messy presidential desk, his voice and mannerisms come as something of a shock. In Selby’s mind, Honest Abe is no statuesque orator, but a crotchety, hunched-over guy with a blue tongue and a hick Southern accent. He’s immensely engaging, and Hellesen gives Selby zingers 21st century locals will love. Lincoln: “What do you think of Washington?” Douglass: “It’s magnificent.” Lincoln: “It’s a mess!”
Craig Wallace, as Douglass, is not amused. It’s unclear whether coming to the role sooner would have made him a better sparring partner for Selby. (Ford’s announced just a week before opening that Wallace would replace an ailing David Emerson Toney.) At least the actor playing Lincoln has a desk full of props to play with. All Wallace does is stand around looking self-important while wearing an uncomfortable-looking amount of facial hair. In short, he portrays Douglass as stoic stick-in-the-mud. That may be historically informed, but it doesn’t allow for much of a character arc, or even pathos. The performance I attended was ASL-interpreted, and during Douglass’s monologues, I found myself watching the interpreter “speaking” for Wallace, not because he was distracting, but because he conveyed a broader range of emotion. His face and gestures were full of sadness as he related wrenching stories about Douglass’ escape to freedom, the death of his daughter, and the massacre of black troops at Fort Pillow. Morally, historically, and humanly, Frederick Douglass may have the upper hand, but Wallace doesn’t onstage, and an actor cannot hold an audience’s attention with ideology alone.