Statement from Director Paul R. Tetreault
"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 do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." -Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 1865
As a country, we are at a critical time in our history. The deaths of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement have again laid bare racial injustices that have been sanctioned and accepted for far too long. Ford’s Theatre is no stranger to challenging times. In truth, we were forged in one of this country’s most difficult eras—the Civil War—and exist today as a living reminder of the president who led us through perhaps one of the most divisive times in our nation’s history, Abraham Lincoln. Today, as Ford’s Theatre and the entire theatre field face possibly the most challenging time in American theatre history, we once again draw upon President Lincoln for inspiration, wisdom and comfort.
Inspired by Lincoln’s gift for storytelling and his understanding of humanity and the grace of empathy—and as we anticipate emerging from the isolation of COVID-19 into a country in great turmoil—we renew our commitment to use our storytelling abilities to effect change and make a difference. We cannot solve the country’s problems, but theatre can inspire its citizens—our audiences—with stories of courage, hope, determination and justice.
The great issue before us is Racial Injustice. This spring, Ford’s will raise its voice to cry for a just nation and answer the call for racial justice with the production of three plays—three compelling stories—that look at the challenges of race with an uncompromising but hopeful eye.
At Ford’s Theatre, we declare once again that Black Lives Matter. We lean into this mantra to acknowledge the racial injustice that still permeates our country. We honor three iconic historical figures who each played a role in the fight for racial justice and equality. We hope to continue to learn from the respective legacies of Marian Anderson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass, and shed light on the legacies of individuals whose stories may be less familiar but equally deserving of exploration.
My Lord, What a Night by Deborah Brevoort gives life to the little-known story of the unique friendship between the great African-American opera star Marian Anderson and the Father of Modern Science, Albert Einstein. The play culminates with Anderson’s historic concert on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, at the Lincoln Memorial—a momentous event that inspired generations forever.
The Mountaintop by Katori Hall imagines the last night the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spent on earth—April 3, 1968. It was on this evening that MLK gave his speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In the play, King encounters Camae, a maid at the Lorraine Motel whose unusual presence and foresight turn out to be prophetic. Every second of their interaction reminds us that King’s Civil Rights legacy will continue to define the future for all time.
In Necessary Sacrifices by Richard Hellesen, Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery and became the voice of Black America during the Civil War, challenges Abraham Lincoln to use the power of the Presidency to turn America’s founding ideal that “all men are created equal” into more than words. Based on documented encounters, the play shows how the two men come together during a period of national crisis, keenly illuminating the inequalities that continue to confront Black Americans today.
In addition to our season beginning in 2021, Ford’s Theatre is launching The Lincoln Legacy Commissions, an unprecedented artistic initiative that will yield a minimum of 5 commissions. At a time when our Nation is facing a long-overdue reckoning on our racial history, Ford’s Theatre seeks to forge partnerships with BIPOC playwrights at the forefront of defining the future of the American Theatre. The commissions will explore historical figures and illuminate stories that might not be as well known in the racial struggle for equality and Civil Rights. The commissions will speak to the moment while giving voice to underrepresented stories and forgotten heroes. Following Lincoln’s example, this artistic initiative aims to expand our understanding of race and history while allowing for dialogue and engagement at both regional and national levels.
Paul R. Tetreault
Director, Ford's Theatre
On April 14, 1865, a white supremacist named John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. A few days earlier, Booth had heard Lincoln express support for limited Black suffrage; after hearing Lincoln’s speech, Booth responded, “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”
The history of Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site is intertwined with the fight for racial equity and justice. In May, I promised that Ford’s Theatre would stand in solidarity with the Black Community and to support calls of justice for all victims of racial violence and terror.
Since then, I and our staff have been grappling with how Ford’s as an institution can support the movement for racial justice and efforts to dismantle white supremacy. As a Civil War-era historic site, we see direct connections between the history we tell and the legacy of that history more than 150 years later. We believe that you have to study the past to understand the present.
I also understand we need to do deep listening. We have been talking with artists, staff and board members regarding concrete actions we can take. Though we cannot currently gather in person, we continue to virtually bring together audiences to discuss and explore how our history intersects with current calls for justice. In June, we programmed our virtual Cabinet Conversation to explore how we remember and memorialize the Civil War, and how the legacies of the Lost Cause impact our world today. We will revisit that topic again later in July.
We are also continuing the internal work we began in January with the Empathetic Museum on ways to strengthen diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and create a culture of empathy at Ford’s. We also have a group of staff who are independently organizing a staff-led anti-racism working group. Ford’s Theatre is only as strong as its people, and we must improve ourselves and our staff culture in order to change the institution and make an impact in our community.
I know we have a great deal of work ahead of us. We must focus on being actively anti-racist. We must hold ourselves accountable. When we misstep, we must listen, apologize and do better. We must move past performative acts of solidarity and toward deep and lasting change. Stay tuned.
We are undaunted by the task.
Paul R. Tetreault
Director, Ford's Theatre
Ford’s Theatre has long dedicated itself to making Lincoln’s vision of the world a reality: a reality in which all people can live in a just and peaceful nation. Now, in a time of crisis, we rededicate ourselves to the great work that consumed Lincoln’s life.
The power of the Theatre lies in the stories it tells to the community it gathers. If we can no longer gather, we lose our most powerful tool: our creative voice. This is especially challenging in times of civil unrest, when we long most to speak directly to the community we serve. We are silenced. However, with silence comes the opportunity to listen, to reflect, and to plan. We have been listening, and to our African-American Friends and Colleagues across this nation, we say: WE HEAR YOU. We hear your rage, and we know we must give it voice. We hear your cry for Justice, and know we must answer it by demanding Justice for all, in all aspects of our society. And we hear your weeping, and know we must answer it with love and acceptance.
As Ford’s Theatre plans for the future, we commit to using our power to tell stories that speak to the present moment with courage, hope, inspiration, joy and healing. We will not let this moment of tremendous challenge be forgotten until a more just society emerges, so all of our children can grow up in a country that values every single life as precious.
In the meantime, we stand in solidarity with the Black Community. We support your calls of justice for George Floyd and all victims of racial violence and terror. With you, we demand reforms in the way our police forces engage with Black citizens. And like you, we will work tirelessly to build a society where acts of violence and hate against minorities are no longer tolerated.
Paul R. Tetreault
Director, Ford's Theatre