By Debbie Jackson
Friday, February 24, 2023
The words and writings of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass came to life in A Walk to Respect at the Kennedy Center. The play was a special presentation sponsored by The Patterson Foundation.
Hearing the words delivered by Joel PE King as the fiery Douglass and Jeffrey Atherton as the more measured Abraham Lincoln brought both men and their positions into focus. The actors’ portrayals resonated with such heartfelt clarity that we recognized the wretched legacy of slavery that continues to impact the country’s ongoing reckoning and wresting with its own identity.
The passages were beautifully rendered. The messages brought a new sense of urgency in understanding the humanity of these two men and their respect for each other. Lincoln’s enthusiastic greeting to Douglass as “my friend, Mr. Douglass” says wonders. In the years of slavery when African Americans were not regarded as people - let alone to be respected -Lincoln’s salutation speaks volumes.
Writer Beth Duda explained that she was inspired by the similarities of these two men and the poet/writer Cedric Hameed added information about their backgrounds: how both lost their mothers in childhood, were self-educated and endured harsh living conditions. Joel King’s Douglass made it perfectly clear that being denied as human - sold like animals and whipped for no reason - was the ultimate hardship. The distinctions were powerfully intense.
In the morning talk-back, a youngster noticed the flag mounted onstage had the letter “K” among the stars. The presenters explained that at the time, the Kansas territory was under consideration and had not yet been granted statehood. With all of the turmoil about the expansion of slavery, the flag was known as the “bleeding Kansas flag.”
The highest emotional point was the passage of Lincoln’s walking cane to Douglass. We’ve heard the story, of course, of Mary Lincoln’s bequeathing this beloved object to Douglass after the assassination - but there is nothing like the impact of seeing this beautifully staged rendition. I heard sniffles all around me and was surprised by my own moist eyes at the portrayal. It was beautiful.
The post-show talk-backs were also incredibly effective and worthwhile attending. Lincoln Group members attended both morning and evening sessions and made valuable connections with the artists. Duda shared that her main mission was to stress the importance of communicating with each other with care and respect, no matter how different our views or ways of life. The conditions for Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were strikingly opposite but with bravery and determination they were able to deeply listen to and communicate with each other.
Duda noted that she was so disheartened by the growing deep divide throughout the country and hoped that highlighting these two leaders could show how respect can bridge great gaps and conquer hate. In a way, the messages go even beyond the script to deepen our understandings and hopefully open us to new perspectives.
A Walk to Respect brought the audience to a rousing standing ovation. Attendees left with more insight and determination to keep up the spirit of walking and talking with each other –with respect.
For more information on this presentation, see Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: A Walk to Respect - The Patterson Foundation.
(Photo credit: The Patterson Foundation)