Greenwood's Taproot Theatre Brings the Lincoln-Douglass Debates to Life

An onstage clash between two giants of American history
| Updated: October 1, 2019
Lamar Legend as Frederick Douglass

In politically and culturally chaotic times like these, it’s not hard to find contemporary resonance in just about any stage work any theater company can muster. Even so, it was striking to see a play so utterly timely as Taproot’s Necessary Sacrifices, in which two characters take on exactly the same argument—ethical idealism vs. political reality—that we’d all watched dramatically unfold that very week (and which many of us likely spent plenty of Facebook time engaged in).

Based on later newspaper accounts and the participants’ own letters, the two acts of Richard Hellesen’s 2012 play reimagine the two visits that journalist and former enslaved person Frederick Douglass (played by Lamar Legend) made to President Lincoln (Ted Rooney) at the White House roughly a year apart at the height of the Civil War. Douglass had been highly effective recruiting black soldiers to fight for the Union, and he’s persuaded by his friend and fellow abolitionist George Stearns (Andrew Litzky) to continue. But Douglass has a few grievances to air before he’ll further support the Union cause, so Stearns suggests he visit the White House in person to make his case. (Back then, Douglass tells us, one could simply walk in the front door and ask to see the President.)

His concerns: the pay discrepancy between black and white soldiers; the disparate treatment they receive as POWs; the absence of black men among the Union Army’s officers; and the goal of the war itself. Douglass calls for the abolition of slavery as a condition of reuniting the broken nation, while Lincoln needs to be convinced. Douglass loses patience with Lincoln’s willingness to compromise; Lincoln loses patience with Douglass’s unwillingness to acknowledge the realities of what he’s up against in the election year of 1864, primarily the implacable racism of the men who have the power to approve, or not, the policy changes Douglass demands—and of the nation and its institutions. 

The Douglass of Necessary Sacrifices is exactly the Douglass familiar from his writings: fiery, proud, eloquent, poignant in recounting the vagaries and struggles of his own life. The Lincoln of the play may differ from what you imagine based on the monumental gravity of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural or the dour, careworn face of the familiar schoolroom portrait: This gregarious Lincoln is a fount of dry wit and wry epigrams, a homespun Oscar Wilde. Both Legend (featured in Seattle Magazine’s fall arts photo spread of local actors to watch) and Rooney score big, rendering grippingly both their clash of personalities and viewpoints and their underlying (if begrudging) respect and growing affection and their richly absorbing give-and-take made the two-hour show whiz by.

Their tussle over what should be and what could be entertainingly demonstrates that, then as ever, compromise is the foundation stone of democracy—a system of government in which nobody ever gets precisely what they want. Necessary Sacrifices opens a window onto the hard choices that had to be made when the stakes were at their highest, of which we’re still feeling the effects.

Ends Oct. 26. Times and prices vary. Taproot Theatre, Greenwood

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