Will the Real Abe Lincoln Please Stand-Up

Review: “Common Ground” at the Actors Temple Theatre

By Anthony J. Piccione, OuterStage lead-writer

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As a society, American citizens tend to remember its former presidents with fondness, with a tendency to forgive – or even forget – some of their worst traits and biggest mistakes. Arguably, no president in history is remembered with more fondness than Abraham Lincoln, given how he is remembered his role in freeing the slaves and ending the Civil War. However, as the new musical  Common Ground shows us, even “Honest Abe” – while his ultimate legacy may have been leagues above that of more recent presidents – was hardly a saint.

The premise is clear: While Mr. Lincoln is lionized by most Americans today, he was a far more politically driven and morally complex figure than the symbol he has become, and as depicted in the conversations he has with Mr. Fredrick Douglass, where he questions the political value of pushing for abolition during the Civil War, and even goes as far as to question – despite his declared disdain for slavery – whether black and white people are truly equal. By the time the show ends, there’s not much doubt, as to why Lincoln didn’t ultimately push further on civil rights than he should have, despite the fact that abolishing slavery proved to be far from the end for what would be – and still is – a long historical struggle for social justice.

It’s certainly an intriguing concept for a show, and I applaud the writer of the show for his willingness to look at such a beatified historical figure with a more critical eye. However, while some on the creative team seemed to wonder beforehand whether it would be too controversial to depict Lincoln as such, I would actually argue that there’s room to go further here. Regardless of the different times that Lincoln lived in, that doesn’t excuse that Lincoln could have gone further and pushed more aggressively than he did. Racism is not an issue where there is any room for compromise or “common ground” and I would have liked to seen the show find a way to make that clearer, particularly given the current political climate. Nonetheless, the show still does a good job, at least, at raising the question of whether our 16th President was really the champion of civil rights that many remember him as, or a political creature whose motives for doing some good on the issue of slavery were far more complicated.

It’s particularly difficult to fully critique the music when reviewing a staged reading for a musical, given the obvious difference there would be when hearing it performed by a full orchestra, as opposed to a piano. Yet its easy to imagine how in a full production, many of the songs written for this musical would blow audiences away, particularly the gospel-inspired songs toward the beginning of the show, which clearly got the attention of the audience toward the beginning of the reading.

Directed by none other than Jay Michaels, the reading was wonderfully staged, and the performances by its ensemble of performers were vocally impressive, as they performed the various musical numbers. While each of the actors were fairly good, the standout performance of the night was Kalonjee Gallimore, whose passionate performance as Fredrick Douglass was particularly strong, and helps draw the audience into the vital conversations he has with Lincoln and others on the issues the play confronts.

Again, this is a show that is still being developed and has yet to be fully realized, and when it reaches the next stage of its journey, I suspect it will evolve further beforehand. Nonetheless, judging by this performance, and the overwhelming reaction at the reading I attended, I won’t be shocked if we eventually start in to hear more about this musical’s future in the coming years, and unlike some other musicals I’ve seen recently, this production will merit the attention…

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                COMMON GROUND

 

                “Common Ground” stars Kalonjee Gallimore, Dan Pavacic, Miranda Luze, Maurio Brown, Steven M. Singer, Aviana Rivera, Brenden MacDonald & Hannah Bonnett.

 

                “Common Ground” is written by Granville Wyche Burgess with music by Stan Wietrzychowski and is directed by Jay Michaels, featuring assistant director Jessica Francis Fichter and musical director Tracy Stark.

 

                “Common Ground” ran for one night only at the Actors Temple Theatre, located at 339 W 47th Street, New York, NY, on December 9th.

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