By Debbie Jackson
Friday, May 27, 2022
The inaugural reading of the play Freedom’s Temple—the Lincoln Memorial exceeded my wildest dreams. As producer and dramaturg, I, of course, was totally familiar with the script by Bryce O. Stenzel. Kurt DeSoto from the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (CWRTDC) alerted me last fall about the play knowing that LGDC was planning a celebration to commemorate the Lincoln Memorial Centennial.
From the very beginning, I was impressed that Freedom’s Temple introduced various characters and presented their involvement in creating the Lincoln Memorial. At the same time, with the play's large number of characters and theatrical facilities closed during the pandemic, I knew we couldn’t set up a performance. But the information was so enticing and topical; I was determined to do something with it.
Bryce, Kurt and I mulled over the possibilities for months and finally agreed that a reading was the best option. I consulted with directors who suggested that we reshape and reframe the piece. Kurt started the process and excerpted one of the most significant passages dealing with Marian Anderson. Using that as a model, I covered the rest of the script, pulling out what I thought would work in a reading, added a Narrator for a through line, and we had an initial cut.
With facilities still closed and unavailable for a reading, we were still stumped, until David Kent suggested – why not present it on Zoom? Voila! I’ve been enjoying digital theater and readings from the start of the pandemic, so I knew it would be feasible. The next step was securing a director who could pull all the pieces together and present a finished product. I immediately found KenYatta Rogers, an award-winning actor, director, and now professor at Montgomery College.
The opening montage of the final product included Civil War footage, sounds of the fife and drum, even a youngster in a Union Army uniform. The sounds and images pulled the audience directly into the time and space of the Civil War. There was even a voice over of the Gettysburg Address recited by the playwright, Bryce. He has performed Lincoln re-enactments over the years and Kurt helped produce the vocals, which KenYatta used effectively and successfully in the final production.
The early scenes start as a Ken Burns style documentary, identifying people and their roles in the proposals and planning for the Memorial. Suddenly, the tone shifts as the actors speak directly to us as specific characters. That, to me, was the pivotal magic of the program, how the director merged and blended the documentary form into a theatrical performance of actors bringing to life key figures in the Lincoln Memorial history. The artistic team, including Alie Karambash, Assistant Director, found stock footage of the various people and strategically placed them as background for the actors. The effect was mesmerizing.
Four actors portrayed an array of characters. Sasha Olinick and Michelle Rogers are well-known in the local theater community and delivered standout performances. Highlights include Olinick as Sol Hurok, the protective immigrant agent for Marian Anderson, who blasted anyone who disrespected the singer. Michelle Rogers’ Marian Anderson was the epitome of grace as she dealt with recurring indignities. Watching them together was a performance master class.
Diana Gonzalez-Ramirez and Ayanna ‘Yani’ Hill completed the stellar ensemble portraying an assortment of characters with ease, including Dr. Robert Moton (Director of Tuskegee Institute and the lone African American on the dedication program) and Eleanor Roosevelt. The original script had Franklin D. Roosevelt lamenting Eleanor’s insistence he approve the national grounds for the concert. KenYatta noted the preponderance of male characters and suggested – why not let Eleanor speak for herself? Bryce then developed text for Eleanor Roosevelt including a heated exchange with a reporter, thereby highlighting the conflicting high stakes and clashing reputations that needed to be overcome for the concert to happen.
The Zoom excerpts from the full play, Freedom’s Temple, the Lincoln Memorial, worked so well on many levels that in the discussion afterwards, attendees enthusiastically suggested it be made available to students of all ages. Bryce noted that from his own years as an educator he came to understand that students learn in different ways and that was one of the reasons he started writing plays, to reach students with multiple learning needs. He feels theater can present history as a full visual and oral experience that touch hearts and enlighten beyond the facts.
That’s what appealed to me from the beginning. Even when I wasn’t sure how we could fashion the script into a performance, I couldn’t let it go. Or in a way, it wouldn’t let me go. The show is now in post-production. We’ll soon have a link to share on request and possibly even display on our LGDC and CWRTDC homepages. It’s a testament to the power of collaboration and theater to share history.
For more information on the play itself, as well as on the background of both the playwright and the director, see our https://www.lincolnian.org/post/continue-the-celebration-attend-a-free-premiere-dramatic-reading-subject-the-lincoln-memorial