Speaking truth to power takes on profound new meaning when the parties involved are abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. Here’s your chance to be a fly on the wall as these great men meet in “Necessary Sacrifices,” a west coast streaming premiere by North Coast Rep.
The story begins in August 1863, midway through the American Civil War. Without the formality of an appointment, Douglass (Hawthorne James) undertakes an arduous journey from New York to Washington, D.C., and joins a throng of white petitioners clamoring for an executive office audience. Lincoln (Ray Chambers) ushers Douglass in ahead of all the others and gets an earful about the discriminatory treatment of Black recruits in the Union army. Among the insults: lower pay and no possibility of advancement to the officer ranks.
That upwards of 179,000 former slaves will ultimately enlist in the war effort has a lot to do with Douglass recruiting on behalf of the army following the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. He does so in the belief that military services would help win public respect for Blacks. [U.S. history refresher: The Emancipation Proclamation does not free all enslaved people at the time of its enactment; only those in select Confederate states as a military tactic to increase the ranks of the Union army.]
Douglass presses the president to take the next vital step: Officially abolish slavery and confer full citizenship and voting rights upon formerly subjugated people. In truth, the president can do little more than sign proclamations – subject to repeal by a new administration – meanwhile relying on white officers and soldiers to carry out a limited mandate toward equality.
“I can only go as far and as fast as the people in this country will let me,” he says.
Discourse remains heated. At one juncture, it appears rhetoric will give way to fisticuffs.
There are also poignant moments as the men share stories of their hardscrabble upbringings and the necessary sacrifices called for when devoting one’s life to a social cause. Realizing they both endure the crushing grief of having lost a child, the president places a consoling hand on his guest’s shoulder. Douglass does not flinch from the intimacy.
Peter Ellenstein directs this full production – filmed on the North Coast Rep’s mainstage during final rehearsal – observing all mandated COVID-19 safety and testing procedures. Behind the camera and in front of the editing monitor, cinematographer Aaron Rumley. The high-definition results look dazzling on a large flat-screen TV.
James and Chambers are convincing as Douglass and Lincoln in their demeanor, delivery and appearance (hair and wigs by Peter Herman). In keeping with Douglass’s persona of accomplishment and dignity, costume designer Elisa Benzoni outfits him in a fastidious suit of a long coat, brocade vest and silk cravat fastened with a pearl stick pin. Lincoln wears a rumpled frock coat and trousers that looks positively lived in.
The office setting (courtesy of scenic designer Marty Burnett) features touches of green flocked wallpaper; heavy red velvet drapes held open with gold cords and topped with a valance fringe; lavish carpets a wood-plank floor; and a Chippendale secretary bookcase containing a disarray of books, loose papers and candlesticks.
At the beginning of both acts, the inclusion of historic day-in-the-life photos of Black troops and military encampments are a value-add. So, too, is of-the-era music and vocal selections provided by Michael Sivlersher.
As the first filmed stage offering by North Coast Rep, there are a few technical issues: P-popping in overly sensitive mics and stage mannerisms more suited to playing to back-row seating than a close-up camera. Minor quibbles that undoubtedly will be sorted out in subsequent filmed productions.
The sign of a successful history-based play is it sends you on a research quest for more information after viewing. This is one such play.
by Lynne Friedmann