TRR photos by Jonathan Charles Fox
As work continues on developing “The Lion of Anacostia,” public readings like the one I heard at the Ethelbert B. Crawford library in Monticello provide playwright Gregory Giblin, center,  an opportunity to hear the words spoken aloud and gauge audience response.

‘Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’

There are many of us who still wince upon hearing those words that most would agree were written in poor taste, and others who will literally guffaw in response to the expression that has been bandied about for an undetermined number of years. I’ve seen it in print, heard it spoken aloud, and even said it myself, understanding that it’s not exactly “politically correct.” Some would say that “time heals all wounds,” and while I’m unsure that this is true, I’d like to think that since one of America’s most influential Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated in 1865, enough time has passed for a little “sick” humor to make its way into the public lexicon, which this particular phrase has.

That said, I didn’t write it (don’t shoot the messenger!), and following an exhaustive search to determine who did, I came up empty-handed. Comedian Bob Newhart, musician Tom Lehrer and an unnamed New Yorker cartoonist all popped up in my quest to identify the author, but no definitive answer was supplied. The best I could come up with was a reference to a contest sponsored by The New Statesman, a weekly British newspaper, which was intended to “allow its readers to flash their creativity and sharp satirical wits” (www.thestraightdope.com). The “Mrs. Lincoln” remark (allegedly) was the result of a competition in which entrants were invited to suggest “especially tactless remarks with an historical bent.”

Undoubtedly, a circuitous route to explain why that phrase recently emerged from the dark recesses of what my mother often called a “sick and twisted mind,” but it made sense (to me) as I packed up the dog and headed to Monticello, NY (www.ebcrawfordlibrary.org) to hear playwright Gregory Giblin and actors Oliver King and Regina Yeager-Drouse read excerpts from Giblin’s work-in-progress play titled “The Lion of Anacostia,” which revolves around the life of famed 19th century orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his relationship with women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony and (cue the comment) Abraham Lincoln.

Since 1976 every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month, “an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans for recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history” (www.history.com), and Giblin’s play was presented at the library in conjunction. It gave folks like me an opportunity to become better informed regarding a man about whom I knew very little.

Acknowledging that many of the words the audience was about to hear were direct quotes from both Douglass and Anthony, Giblin further explained that the play centers on an “imagined” interview between the very real reporter Tom O’Brien and Douglass, whose words were brought to life with great insight, tremendous passion (IMHO) and incredible thoughtfulness by King, who is no stranger to the work of Frederick Douglass.

“I’ve often heard of [famous] actors portraying historical figures,” King shared with me following the performance. “For years I’ve done excerpts of Douglass’ speeches [in honor of Black History Month], but always felt somehow shortchanged having to shrink a man of such enormous human and historical dimensions to a few mere moments. With this play, I’m blessed to have the opportunity to explore his unbridled compassion and greatest fears, for in my opinion Douglass is the single most important and influential luminary of the African American race since the 17th century.”

Playwright Giblin’s original script, which explores the often combative friendship that developed between Susan B. Anthony and Douglass is well written and insightful, and actress Regina Yeager-Drouse had clearly done her homework as well. “In preparation for the role,” she said, “I turned to Lynn Sherr’s biographical work ‘Failure is Impossible,’ and was surprised to discover that most friends knew Anthony as ‘that woman who was on the dollar coin.’” That spoke volumes to her about how little most knew about Anthony’s role as a spokesperson for women’s rights and her fight alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton to achieve equality for women and their right to vote. “It’s been an honor to learn more and play opposite the wonderful Oliver King,” Regina concluded, “and I look forward to the continued exploration of this incredible woman, who was so much more than a face on a coin.”

As a general rule, I’m not overly fond of a writer portraying his own characters, but Giblin’s interpretation of O’Brien and his fictional conversations with Douglass were thought-provoking and fascinating.

“My takeaway from writing this play is that the world should know much more about these people who were considered giants of their time,” Giblin told me. “It also gave me insight into the machinations of slavery and Douglass’ role in shaping decisions made by Lincoln during the Civil War.”

Although I learned a lot during the play reading, it left me with more questions than answers, and I was thrilled to hear that Giblin is far from finished, with his work being fleshed out into a full length play. We all know that there is nothing funny about the subject (regardless of this column title), but I did “enjoy the play” and relish the opportunity to learn more about Douglass, Lincoln and Anthony as Giblin’s play continues to take on a life of its own. Stay tuned.

 

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