Frederick Douglass, one of the main characters in Necessary Sacrifices.
Frederick Douglas ca. 1877. Credit: Library of Congress

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In 1863, abolitionist, orator, and writer Frederick Douglass traveled down from Rochester, New York during the Civil War determined to get a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln—and he succeeded. A year later, the roles were flipped, and Lincoln wanted to see Douglass. These two meetings are the core of playwright Richard Hellesen’s Necessary Sacrifices, which Ford’s Theatre is presenting as a radio play directed by Psalmayene 24. From Douglass’ extensive published efforts, we know some of the history of what those two spoke about, including specifics about Black Union soldiers, but thanks to a mostly clever script, Craig Wallace’s deep baritone as Douglass, and Paul Morella’s folksy timbre as Lincoln, the challenging conversations become a charged drama about the place of Black people in America. The audio version is a revised version of what Ford’s Theatre first presented in 2012 as an onstage play.  Hellensen says his 2021 script better balances drama and history, and says “I want to go beyond the myth as much as I can,” referring to the iconic nature of both characters. Psalmayene 24, who had previously co-written The Frederick Douglass Project about a Douglass trip to Ireland, also suggested changes to the earlier script. He says the new version shows Lincoln and Douglass “forging a friendship as we listen,” while also conveying how the formerly enslaved Douglass challenges the president. In the play, Douglass says to Lincoln about the treatment of a Black man, “It may have pricked your conscience, but it singed my skin.” Psalmayene also notes how new context changes how the production will be heard, including Black Lives Matter protests, the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the Derek Chauvin murder trial. He says Necessary Sacrifices asks “How much has the country changed, how far have we come when it comes to issues of race?” The play is available to stream to May 30 at Free.