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Remembering the Legacy of Lincoln

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Ford's Theatre Society director Paul Tetreault says the Lincoln Legacy Project seeks to explore -- on stage and off -- the ideals of our 16th president.
Ford's Theatre Society
Ford's Theatre Society director Paul Tetreault says the Lincoln Legacy Project seeks to explore -- on stage and off -- the ideals of our 16th president.

Now playing at Ford's Theatre in downtown D.C., the Tony Award-winning musical, Parade, takes place in early 20th-century Atlanta, and tells the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent accused of murdering a 13-year-old female employee. Frank was sentenced to death, then life imprisonment, and was later murdered by a mob.

But as Ford's Theatre director Paul Tetreault will tell you, they didn't just choose "Parade" because it's a great story. They also hoped it would call to mind, in some respect, the theater's most famous audience member: Abraham Lincoln. 

The issues central to "Parade" -- anti-Semitism, racial injustice and religious intolerance -- are at the heart of a new program combining stage performances and community dialogues to honor the 16th president's legacy.

"When they say, 'how do you choose plays,' I always tell people, 'Well, I always think about what would Abraham Lincoln think if we presented this play today?'" says Tetreault. "If we presented this, would he appreciate it? Would he approve? Would he disapprove?"

To make an even stronger connection between the theater and President Lincoln, Tetreault and others at Ford's Theatre dreamed up the Lincoln Legacy Project. The five-year program will include one play each season that echoes the causes Lincoln held dear: "equality, tolerance, fighting for the down-trodden," says Tetreault.

The Project also will include Monday night discussions featuring historians, journalists, congressional leaders and artists, among others. But the endeavor isn't just about keeping Lincoln's legacy alive. 

"This is also about wanting to create a dialogue within our community, which happens to be Washington D.C.," Tetreault says. "So we kind of have the crazy idea that maybe we can actually change a few minds about how we deal with civility, how we deal with tolerance, how we deal with equality, how we deal with being different.

"I mean, if it can't happen on Capitol Hill all on its own, maybe the theater can be the catalyst to get people to sort of think about these ideas and recognize how important they are," he continues. 

During the run of each show in the program, Ford's Theatre and the Lincoln Legacy partners will host a dialogue on the key issues: for Parade, those players include the Anti-Defamation League (which actually formed as a result of the Leo Frank case), the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Historical Society.

As for some future plays that could be part of the series, nothing is set in stone yet. Some under consideration are Fly, which focuses on the experiences of the African American Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, The Laramie Project, which deals with the hate crime against Matthew Shepherd and student bullying, The Crucible, Arthur Miller's dramatic re-telling of the Salem witch trials, and The Scottsboro Boys, the story of the trial of nine black boys accused of raping two white girls in 1931.

"The whole concept is to keep this legacy of Abraham Lincoln alive and this concept that he had about equality for all people," Tetreault says. 

Parade is playing at Ford's Theatre through Oct. 30.

Photos: Remembering the Legacy of Lincoln

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