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David Selby stars in Abe Lincoln-Frederick Douglass play

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia native David Selby has depicted Abraham Lincoln several times in his acting career and returns to the role in a world-premiere production through Feb. 18 at the theater in Washington, D.C., where Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.

"Necessary Sacrifices," at Ford's Theatre, explores the two documented encounters between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The fiery abolitionist challenged Lincoln during the summers of 1863 and 1864 to use his power as president to bring fruition to America's founding ideal that "all men are created equal." Craig Wallace portrays Frederick Douglass.

Ford's Theatre director Paul R. Tetreault describes the two historic figures as "two self-made men from humble beginnings who influenced a nation. Both envisioned a world of freedom and equality, but they did not always see eye to eye on how to achieve that vision. This play explores Lincoln and his legacy from Douglass' point of view."

Selby previously depicted Lincoln in "The Heavens Are Hung In Black," which coincided with the reopening of the theater in 2008 and the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth. In remarks adapted from an email interview, Selby discussed the production, his ongoing interest in Lincoln, as well as his cameo in an upcoming movie version of "Dark Shadows," which pays homage to the cult TV hit, which co-starred Selby as Quentin Collins and helped launch his career.

Q: You've long had an interest in Lincoln. How was that originally stoked and how often have you played him?

A: Interest in Lincoln goes back to my graduate school days at Southern Illinois University. I was tall and lean -- still am -- and they needed someone to play Lincoln in a play in New Salem, where Lincoln's family moved when he was nearing 20 or so. My wife and I lived with a woman whose grandfather knew Lincoln, purportedly. She was a wonderful person and had great stories as did many folks in the village of Petersburg, a few miles from New Salem.

Later in New York, I even did a musical version of young Lincoln. The composer was a terrific man and concert pianist, Earl Wild. Later, I did an episode of "Touched By An Angel" playing Lincoln. Three years ago, I was at Ford's for another Lincoln play, "The Heavens Are Hung In Black." I've now written a play featuring Lincoln.

Q: What about his character appeals to you?

A: He embodied traits of leadership: empathy, cold reasoning, humor, calmness, having the best and strongest around you, not going back on his word, respecting everyone (write a letter of anger but not send it). Not giving up.

He liked to weigh all sides of a subject, but once having given his word, he never contradicted it or retreated from it. He may have gone slow or found roundabout ways to get where he was going. But he got there.

Q: Frederick Douglass was as strong a personality as Lincoln. What was their relationship like? How did Lincoln come to know Douglass personally and how did this affect his administration?

A: Douglass paid a visit to Lincoln to discuss equal pay and promotions for black soldiers. He had written tough words about the tardy, hesitating policy of Lincoln's. The second visit, Lincoln invited Douglass to talk over a plan Lincoln had to free more slaves than were coming across lines from the South because of emancipation. But Sherman took Atlanta and there was no need to carry the plan out.

Lincoln won re-election and Douglass was in the crowd at Lincoln's taking the oath. Later Douglass was greeted by Lincoln: "There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more." They had great respect for each other. The play has resonance for today and should be seen. Not very many are up on Frederick Douglass and how important he was. He was the Martin Luther King of his day.

Q: America seems locked in political stasis these days, and race seems to hide behind some coded language used in the presidential campaign, such as Newt Gingrich referring to President Obama as "the food stamp president." What perspectives does "Necessary Sacrifices" bring to this ongoing question of leadership on race and the uses of political power?

A: Yes, it seems as though history has not taught us much. Lincoln knew it would take time. They called him "the n - - - - r president." Go back to the Gettysburg Address to see what Lincoln called for: a new birth of freedom. We must be ever vigilant to Lincoln's "All men are created equal ..."

Lincoln stayed the course -- and was fatalistic about his fate. He carried the burdens and the promise of this country. He believed that the United States of America would show the world that it was not just a free country, but a great country."

Q: Talk about your cameo in the upcoming Tim Burton-directed "Dark Shadows" movie, starring Johnny Depp. How much of your attention is taken up with addressing the ongoing interest in the long-ago TV show (1966 to 1971) on which the movie is based?

A: I have a quick appearance in the "Dark Shadows" film -- if you blink you will miss it. They wanted to pay homage to the TV series and that was wonderful. Can't wait to see the film. Tim Burton's vision for "Dark Shadows" will be special. We had a great time in England -- Pinewood Studios -- at the filming. Great sets!

Warner's is putting 30 minutes back into a film I was in of "Dark Shadows" (1970) and it will come out this summer. I'll be in New York this summer for a few days with "Dark Shadows" promotions.

"Dark Shadows" will follow us for the duration. But that is not a bad thing. It was wonderful to be part of a show that has meant so much to so many and is still finding new fans. The Museum of Film and Television has honored the show and it will have a long shelf life. I expect if the new film is successful, there will be others.

WHAT: "Necessary Sacrifices"

WHEN: Through Feb. 18

WHERE: Ford's Theatre, Washington, D.C.

TICKETS: $15 to $60. Visit ticketmaster.com.

WHAT ELSE: The play coincides with the opening of the Center for Education and Leadership, including new galleries on the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination and evolution of his legacy. Visit www.fords.org.

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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