TR Robertson — If you love theatrical productions, North Coast Repertory Theatre, in Solana Beach, has just the play for you. Not only is this a chance to see a beautifully directed and produced play, but the choice for their production could not have been more appropriate for this time in our nation’s history. David Ellenstein, Artistic Director and his brother Peter Ellenstein, Director, have staged Richard Hellesen’s “Necessary Sacrifices” to the theatre for the beginning of NC Rep’s 39th season and for the plays West Coast premiere. The production began streaming on September 9th and will be available for viewing until October 11th. Go to www.northcoastrep.org to order. Individual viewing is $24.00 and Family viewing is $40.00.
There is no live audience for the play, other than those watching on their computers or television. Peter Ellenstein said, “We are trying to create an experience for the audience as close as we can to live theatre.” The play was originally commissioned by Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. The play centers on two meetings Frederick Douglass had with Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln’s office in the White House during the summers of 1863 and 1864. As Ellenstein said in a recent interview, “I think this is a very important play. It creates a passionate historical context for issues we are still dealing with today and it reveals the humanity and the humor underneath the historical facts.”
The beauty of the play is that the two veteran actors present the emotional, passionate, and volatile situations surrounding these meetings in such a way as though we are eavesdropping on these most historical events. What we see are two men who see different paths to achieving goals they both want, one committed to doing what is morally right and one committed to doing what is politically feasible. Douglass wants to see the freedom of all enslaved people, giving black men who have joined the Union forces the same rights as their white counterparts, along with giving African American men the right to vote. Lincoln is trying to balance winning a war that has divided the Union, struggling to keep Union officers and soldiers working toward this goal regardless of race, and attempting to slowly live up to the words he spoke in the Emancipation Proclamation, “all men are created equal”.
What makes this play spellbinding is the performances of Ray Chambers as Abraham Lincoln and Hawthorne James as Frederick Douglass. James performed a concert version of “Necessary Sacrifices” in Kansas. He has been in over 300 plays, 80 film and television productions, has directed theatre and film and was nominated for a NAACP Image Award for Performance for the Pulitzer Prize winning play “No Place to be Somebody”. Ray Chambers has been an actor and directors in a number of cities across the U.S. He has performed regionally at the North Coast Rep and at the Globe. Ray is currently the Head of Acting in the Old Globe and U.C.S.D. Shiley Graduate Theatre Program.
The costuming, make-up and wig designs along with an accurately designed set and an amazing performance by Chambers and James all blend together to help us believe we have stepped into 1863 and are witnessing history in the making. Hawthorne presents Douglass as a fiercely driven man who is not afraid to speak his mind and is trying to understand why the President cannot give black soldiers the same benefits as white Union soldiers when they are both giving their lives for the Union. Lincoln feels more blacks and whites, need to join the Union soldiers if the war is to be won. He implores Douglass to help him get more blacks to sign up, but Douglass will not budge if Lincoln does not agree to his demands. Lincoln even points out the problem with the draft riots going on in New York as he tries to recruit more soldiers. Chambers presents Lincoln as a man who maintains control, a man with great dignity and a man who is conflicted about things he has said and how he can possibly bring these to pass. Lincoln lets Douglass vent then tries to get Douglass to understand what he is politically trying to battle along with dealing with issues Douglass has in his agenda.
Hellesen’s play emphasizes the similarities of these two giants of history. They are both head strong, have struggled growing up, have made personal sacrifices, have lived their lives dedicated to a cause, are self-educated and not afraid to speak their mind. They have divergent backgrounds and different responsibilities, but similar goals.
The arguments each presents are passionate discussions. The discussion of the “Necessary Sacrifices” the Black Regiments have made and Lincoln’s interpretation of the importance of this brings Douglass to a boiling point. Douglass has a hard time understanding why Lincoln cannot get his War Cabinet to do “what’s right”. Lincoln points out that he can only “go as far and as fast as people will let me”.
There discussions during the second meeting of these two historical figures even takes new historical turns. Lincoln points out he tried to send freed blacks to Haiti to give them a new place to live. This experiment resulted in many deaths and a stop to this endeavor. Since the war is still dragging on, their discussion leads to a disagreement on why the war was needed. Lincoln says it is about saving the Union and controlling states rights issues and stopping slavery was a secondary reason for the Civil War. Douglass says the war was a needed necessity to stop slavery and it was the only way to bring slavery to an end. Lincoln also apologizes for not being able to get Douglass a commission of Major in the Union army.
Back and forth their discussion go. Finally agreeing on a way to get freed blacks to help in the fight to save the Union. We even get to see, from Lincoln, a vision of what he would like the future of the United States to look like.
The importance of the play stands not just in the historical look into the lives and dedication of these two men, but in the importance of dialogue to go through extremely opposite opinions to try and reach a working goal. Peter Ellenstein pointed out “This is not just the West Coast premiere but actually a new version of the play, the playwright trimmed it from three characters to two and really highlighted the conundrums faced by both Lincoln and Douglass.”
As we can see in our world today, to reach any goals within a political system is an exceedingly difficult issue with many obstacles, but they are reachable with constructive plans and policies. Perhaps Peter said it best in our interview: “First, North Coast Rep is really in the vanguard of experimenting with a way of presenting vital theater during this pandemic. Second, “Necessary Sacrifices” gives a much deeper understanding to the racial issues we face today, hopefully provoking introspection and compassion on all sides. Finally, the play is compelling and funny, it is moving, it makes you think, it makes you want to take actin and it makes you proud to be an American, despite our flaws. It finally does what every piece of theatre longs to do; it enhances our experience of being alive”.
“Necessary Sacrifices” is a dynamic, wonderfully acted play and well worth your time to stream. The 1 hour 51 min. production (no intermission) is easy to obtain and a great way to spend part of an afternoon or evening. Next up for streaming from North coast Rep will be Bernard Slade’s dramady “Same Time Next Year”, streaming October 21 – November 15.
Historically Important Events for Voting Rights:
1868 – passage of the 14th Amendment giving citizenship rights and equal protection to all people in the U.S. – directed toward all freed slaves
1870 – passage of 15th Amendment giving male African Americans the right to vote
1920 – passage of the 19th Amendment giving white women the right to vote
1965 – passage of the Voting Rights Act giving all citizens of color (regardless of sex) and with no racial prejudice the right to vote
1971 – passage of the 26th Amendment giving all citizens 18 and older the right to vote.
Change sometimes takes time, maybe Lincoln was right, but so was Douglass!
- Aaron Rumley – Cinematographer
- Marty Burnett – Set Design
- Eliza Benzoni – Costume Design
- Michael Silversher – Music
- Peter Herman – Hair & Wig Design
- Christopher Williams – Cameraman