Paul Tetreault on The Lincoln Legacy Project

Paul R. TetreaultIt seems to be the consensus that these are rancorous times in American politics and society. Some have gone so far as to say that we have not been so divided as a country since the Civil War. While I don’t see us taking up arms against each other any time soon, this is, without question, the most sustained era of bitterly divisive politics in my lifetime. We no longer hold true conversations, but hurl the most egregious epithets at one another with little regard for the truth or concern for the effect of our words. We’ve become verbal bomb-throwers. The results are clear: Our biggest problems go unsolved, our impatience and lack of respect for one another grows exponentially, and hateful words are condoned in the name of ideology.

Some feel that it is the job of the theatre to provide entertainment—to remove us from these tensions and cares and deliver us into an idealized world where all is simple and nice and good. For those of us who work in not-for-profit theatre, the mandate—and desire—to affect the world we live in is strong, and for those of us who work at Ford’s Theatre, the legacy of Abraham Lincoln inspires an even greater desire to pursue the values that he encouraged throughout his life and truncated presidency. Because of our love for the America that Abraham Lincoln envisioned and the relevance of that vision to the times in which we live, we at Ford’s Theatre have created The Lincoln Legacy Project. This multi-year initiative will attempt to create a national conversation about the problems we face and the way we confront them by presenting theatre and educational programming that challenges, illuminates and inspires. Parade is the inaugural play offering of the project, and I am pleased to welcome Theater J as co-producer for this production.

Abraham Lincoln’s great gift to us was the Union: a country that, as he saw it, was more united by our commonalities than divided by differences. His vision was of a country made stronger by diversity and by a democratic process that hammered out ideas in the effort to form a more just and equal society. His second great gift was the elimination of slavery—that “peculiar institution” which, with each year of its existence, proclaimed to all the world the hypocrisy between the ideals we professed and the lives we led. With the elimination of slavery, he set us on the path toward equality under the law for all who live in this country. It’s been a long journey, and one that we still pursue.

Lincoln’s legacy is vast—far more than can be explored even in a five-year initiative. For that reason, we are focusing The Lincoln Legacy Project on the great ideal that is the foundation of his legacy: equality. In exploring equality, we will present plays and musicals that illuminate the irreparable harm caused by inequality: the hatred and bigotry that keep us from becoming the great and generous people we aspire to be. We will showcase the courageous men and women who pursued equality against extraordinary odds, as well as investigate moments in our nation’s history when we failed to live up to our ideals. Our investigation will encompass a range of intolerance based in race, religion, sexual orientation, gender and ideology.

In creating The Lincoln Legacy Project, we are mindful that it’s not just what Lincoln left us that inspires us, but also the way in which he pursued his goals. While he was willing to take the nation to war to pursue his vision, he also did everything he could to avoid war from breaking out and, once the war had been won, pursued a peace that was just and forgiving. From his first inaugural address, he gave us:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

And from the second:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan; to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

These two speeches provide an inspirational roadmap for approaching our national problems. They are the foundation from which we hope to create our community conversations. Over the next five years, we will hold special events allowing our audience to converse in a civil and respectful atmosphere in an effort to create positive and constructive responses to the enormous problems that threaten to overwhelm us, beginning with issues of equality. These events are designed to remind us that we are all in this together, and that together we must work to leave our own legacy of hope for our children and grandchildren.

We look forward to seeing you and hearing from you again and again during the upcoming years of The Lincoln Legacy Project. As always, we’ll see you at the theatre!

September 23, 2011

Photo of Paul R. Tetreault by Scott Suchman.