On a late night, early morning on September 22, 1862, as he ponders signing his great executive order emancipating the slaves Abraham Lincoln is mysteriously visited by Uncle Tom, a slave who is the hero in a book destined to be one of the greatest protest novels ever written, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist masterpiece, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life among the Lowly. Two iconic characters from life and literature—one real, the other fiction—in a surrealistic interaction where they attempt to understand each other across a chasm of race in the midst of the Civil War. Through the night and into the dawning day they will find themselves crossing over into each other’s world in a tale of suffering, self-discovery and redemption.
Published by Dramatists Play Service
Cast & Crew
first presented at the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater in 2014
Written and directed by Carlyle Brown
Steve Hendrickson as Abraham Lincoln
James A. Williams as Uncle Tom
Jodi Kellogg as Mary Todd Lincoln
India Gurley as Elizabeth Keckly
Set design by Joseph Stanley
Lighting design by Mike Wangen
Sound design by C. Andrew Mayer
Costume design by Clare Brauch
Prop design by Kellie Larson
Stage manager: Vanessa I. Davis
Abe Lincoln meets Uncle Tom at the Guthrie
by Rohan Preston, Star Tribune, March 24, 2014
Daniel Day-Lewis won an Academy Award for his indelible portrayal of America’s 16th president in “Lincoln.”
On stage in the Twin Cities, actor Steve Hendrickson is keeping company with the multiple-Oscar winner.
Hendrickson delivers a sterling performance as Lincoln in “Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom in the White House,” Carlyle Brown’s meaty and ingenious one-act that premiered Saturday at the Guthrie Theater.
Hendrickson has the president’s visage, gestures and deliberative mien down pat. He also has the dry wit. The actor is not as tall as his the man he plays, but his high-waisted pants (Clare Brauch designed the period costumes) tricks the eye into giving him more height.
In his portrayal of Lincoln, Hendrickson is at once measured and stately. He also gives us Lincoln’s repressed torment and his emotional detachment from Mary Todd Lincoln (Jodi Kellogg), who has been grieving their dead son.
The drama opens with crashing thunder and blood-red lightning bathing the White House (C. Andrew Mayer did the sound design, while Mike Wangen did the lights). In the midst of this storm, we hear a ghostly boy’s voice saying “Father?” It is the ghost of Lincoln’s son.
When the tempest subsides, lights come up on the president, eyes closed, sprawled on a sofa, one foot on the floor and one hand covering his heart, as if taking an oath. He has reasons to be weary. It is Sept. 22, 1862, just five days after the terrible loss of life at the Battle of Antietam. Lincoln is considering signing the Emancipation Proclamation, something that will free slaves in the South even as it may inflame and prolong the Civil War.
Suddenly, the doors to Lincoln’s office swing open. In steps Uncle Tom, the fictional title character from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famed anti-slavery novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life among the Lowly.” Uncle Tom has come to influence President Lincoln. What follows is a crafty conversation, based on an absurd setup, on freedom and slavery, on war and faith.
Brown, who also produces the play, is a master of this type of interrogation of historical figures. He brought humor and light to Simon Cato, the jockey who bought his own freedom in “Pure Confidence.” He elucidated minstrelsy in “The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show.”
In “Abe Lincoln,” he shows the historical power of Uncle Tom (the sympathy-drawing character) even as he attempts to rescue him from being a byword for betrayal. This Uncle Tom is a man of providence and progress who arrives suddenly and, like a ghost, disappears.
Brown, who also directs the play, could scarcely do better in casting than James A. Williams as Uncle Tom.
Williams is an actor of overwhelming dignity and majesty. Formally attired and delivering in unhurried cadences, his Uncle Tom is a figure of grace, a man of faith, not a too-faithful servant.
Kellogg is excellent as Mary Todd Lincoln. She bursts into the Oval Office, overwhelmed by pain and seeking succor from her husband, so burdened with the weight of soldiers dying and the fate of the nation that he is unable to care for his wife. Kellogg takes us into the depths of her grief expertly, drawing pathos without being pathetic.
India Gurley plays Elizabeth Keckley, the one-time slave who is now Mrs. Lincoln’s confidante. The small role shows us not only companionship across racial lines but also Elizabeth’s keen hunger for reunion and family.
Together, they all make this “Abe Lincoln,” which packs a punch in 75 minutes, excellent work that is not to be missed.
Odd couple: ‘Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom at the White House’
by Graydon Royce, Star Tribune, March 20, 2014
Were a playwright to choose an African-American character to push Abraham Lincoln toward signing the Emancipation Proclamation, the names of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner or Sojourner Truth might come to mind. It’s fiction, so it doesn’t matter whether the meeting really took place. We’re just looking for a plausible subject.
But would you think of Uncle Tom, whose name has become a synonym for servility?
Seems a stretch, but that’s exactly the man Carlyle Brown chose to carry the mantle of freedom in his new play. “Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom in the White House” has its world premiere Saturday in the Guthrie Studio, with actors James A. Williams and Steve Hendrickson. Brown is attempting to turn convention on its head and to reclaim Uncle Tom’s identity in a dialogue that explores the economic dimension of slavery, the notion of self-sacrifice and the intense pressures of leadership.
“I hadn’t read the book, and I had fallen victim to the mentality that says when you hear the name Uncle Tom you get the picture of the worst individual you could imagine,” said Williams, who plays the man. “In reading the book, I found a character of honor and dignity and I thought, maybe this character deserves to be looked at again.”
The book, of course, is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” serialized in a magazine and then published in 1852. The story divided the nation on the question of slavery and set the path for the Civil War. Legend has it that when Beecher Stowe visited the White House herself, Lincoln remarked, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Beecher Stowe was inspired to write her abolitionist tract in response to the Fugitive Slave Act, which in 1850 imposed penalties on law officers in non-slave states to return escapees to the South. Uncle Tom is a slave who refuses to give up information about runaways, and ultimately is martyred. He is kind, perhaps to a fault, because Beecher Stowe wanted to create — in her eyes — a completely sympathetic and human image.
“Mrs. Beecher Stowe was creating what she thought was the perfect spokesman for abolitionists,” Williams said. “It’s almost a superhuman portrayal of kindness and goodness.”
Christlike is the term that many have ascribed to Tom — including both Williams and Brown. It is an identity that has provoked incendiary reactions through the years, fed by polemics that Tom was self-abasing and eager to please the slaveholder. Brown said he has retained the honor and goodness of Uncle Tom, but that he hopes to “reclaim Tom’s identity from Harriet Beecher Stowe.”
How to say something new
Brown had been asked to write something about Lincoln and the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 2013. Easy, right — because nothing has been written about Lincoln or the document he published in 1863 that freed slaves in the rebel states. That’s sarcasm, just fyi.
The decree had military and economic implications. Lincoln initially opposed using blacks in the Union Army, but by 1863, he understood their value to the war effort. Secondly, the proclamation freed slaves who had fueled the South’s prosperity. In fact, that’s why Southern senators wanted the Fugitive Slave Act so badly 13 years earlier. Runaway slaves were draining capital from the economy. Slaves had value. They were the oil of the Southern engine, is how Williams put it.
“Slavery had been an economic assumption from the beginning,” Brown said of the ideas he is discussing in the play. “It’s a reasonable thesis that America began as a slave nation because economically it needed slavery to provide a labor force to develop this vast expanse of land.”
Brown decided he would write a play that took place before Lincoln issued the Proclamation. Uncle Tom stops by the White House for a visit and to plead with the president on terms of morality and decency.
“One of the things we talk about in rehearsal is that there are the wrong reasons and the right reasons to sign the bill, and then there is the human reason,” Williams said.
Uncle Tom argues that amid all the chaos and upheaval the proclamation will cause, there is a quality of doing the right thing.