'Necessary Sacrifices' tells story of Lincoln, Douglass, leadership

Richard Hellesen doesn’t usually write historical plays. But when Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., asks you if you’d like to write something to open their new Center for Education and Leadership, well, you don’t say no.

“I told them, yes, I was interested,” he says. “They replied, ‘OK, here’s your parameters: It needs to be a full-length play, you get one set, three to four characters, we’d prefer if one of them was African-American, it has to be about Abraham Lincoln, and you’ve got a year to write it. Go.’”

What resulted was “Necessary Sacrifices,” a drama about the relationship between the 16th president and abolitionist Frederick Douglass that will have a staged reading Friday night at the Lawrence Arts Center.

“The two actually met twice,” Hellesen says. “The story is about those meetings and what happened and how it shaped their views on what needed to be done.”

Getting that story wasn’t easy. Hellesen struggled to find documentation on the events.

“There’s very little firsthand account of Lincoln’s life or his presidency,” he says. “He didn’t write very much while he was in office, and, of course, he died before he left office and therefore couldn’t write a memoir.”

Douglass, on the other hand, was a prolific writer, having penned three memoirs, several other books, and many letters to which historians have access. But, while he mentions the meetings with Lincoln, he only writes about what they discussed.

“He doesn’t tell us what actually went on between them,” Hellesen says. “He only lists the things they talked about.”

And that made for compelling drama.

“With no clear account of the shape of the meetings, I had to imagine what they said,” he confesses. “That’s where I had to make the leap into playwriting. I had to make choices about how they interacted.”

Certainly, there was a lot of fodder for that. The first meeting occurred when Douglass went to the White House uninvited, entered with an agenda, and somehow managed to get a meeting with the president. Lincoln invited him back for a second conference later.

“They were very different men,” Hellesen says. “Douglass was strident. He wanted abolition immediately. Lincoln was more willing to compromise. Douglass thought Lincoln was moving too slowly. He doubted whether the president really believed in abolition. Lincoln had to tell him he couldn’t just act. He had a Congress to deal with, and he had to bring them along.

“In the end, the two men really influenced each other. Douglass learned pragmatism, and Lincoln learned to gamble — he realized, if he really believed in something, he had to take a risk to make it happen. Together, they came to understand that, if they were going to make this last, how they did it matters.”

The story, despite being grounded in some of the bloodiest moments in U.S. history, has strong echoes for the modern audience — a circumspect president interested in political compromise battling both with a divided Congress and outspoken policy advocates pushing for change.

“The only reason to write an historical play is to have it have some relevance to modern times,” Hellesen says. “It can’t be stuck in its own times.”

“Necessary Sacrifices” was commissioned in 2011 and premiered in early 2012. Hellesen admits the presidential election weighed on his mind as he wrote the play.

“In the second act, Lincoln is running for re-election,” he says. “He’s wondering if he’ll win. He wonders if he has to do something big to make himself win.”

The play asks the question, “What is leadership?” Lincoln presided over the most fractious period in American history and had to find a way to lead the country through war and back. It was a job that would cost him life and that still hasn’t been fully completed.

“The world they (Lincoln and Douglass) left us is the world we’re dealing with today,” Hellesen says.

But despite “Necessary Sacrifices” being a play concerning high-minded ideals such as abolition and leadership, it is a very human story.

“These guys met twice, and we don’t know much about what happened,” he says. “But they changed each other. I was trying to find out more about them as people. That’s what I wanted to explore as a playwright.”

A staged reading of “Necessary Sacrifices” occurs Friday night at the Lawrence Arts Center and is being co-produced by the William Inge Center for the Arts in Independence, Mo. Renowned African-American actor Hawthorne James (“Speed”, “The Color Purple”) will be playing Douglass. A talkback featuring Hellesen and the actors will follow.

“The play has only been produced once,” Hellesen says. “I view it very much as a work in progress. I’ve been making notes for cuts and changes. I love listening to the audience. They tell you what’s working and what isn’t.”

Curtain for “Necessary Sacrifices” is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children and are available at the door. Because of the subject matter, the play is recommended for people in middle school and older.

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