Chris Baker reenvisions Lincoln's world
Sunday, May 1, 2016
Sunday, May 1, 2016
Examining important historical figures and the worlds they inhabited through ingenious media and genre mash-ups has proven fertile theatrical ground lately — see recent iterations of a multicultural Alexander Hamilton, emo Andrew Jackson, and even a dance/art-rock Imelda Marcos.
UMass’s very own Chris Baker has submitted a noteworthy addition to the genre with Lincoln: An American Vaudeville. The piece uses the conventions of vaudeville — a mix of music, comedy, and vignettes — to take a not-strictly-factual look at the milieu of the 16th president and get at some hard truths about our current political situation. Several years in creation, the piece was workshopped at Baltimore’s prestigious Center Stage this April.
Baker plans to edit the piece based on feedback from the Center Stage workshop and hopes to see a future production.
The genesis of the piece for Baker lay not in the past but in the present day.
“It was originally in response to the vitriol coming out against Obama. Alot of it was racial, even if it was not explicit. I read a Time Magazine article about how the (political) divisions in this country were growing... It started me thinking about the origins of these divisions,” Baker said. That train of thought in turn led him back to the Civil War era and the intrigue surrounding Abraham Lincoln's time in office.
He hastens to say that the Lincoln in his piece is a fictionalized “political animal,” as are many of the named characters in the play. “They’re not factual but they represent historical forces — in a world that’s filled with jokes and songs,” Baker said. The play also looks at the concept of legacy, and “the idea that you would be in a job, thinking about your legacy. When did that start?” he asked.
Baker wrote a few scenes about two years ago when he had the original inspiration, and went back to it periodically. This past year, however, he worked with Center Stage on an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and as he finished that project, he decided to revisit Lincoln. He successfully applied for a Faculty Research Grant to work on the piece, and, he said, “it seemed natural, when I got the grant, to turn to the people I collaborated with on Pride and Prejudice.”
Center Stage set a workshop for April, and Associate Artistic Director Hana Sharif, with whom Baker had first worked at Hartford Stage, signed on to direct at his request. With the deadline, Baker set about finishing the piece. He originally thought it might be a play with music, but it struck him that the scenes he had collected had arrangd themselves into something like a vaudeville pattern. “I ran with it,” he said.
Vaudeville shows were a mixture of comedic pieces, songs that often commented upon the topics of the day, and short scenes; just so, Baker juxtaposed period music with scenes featuring historical characters. Taken together, the whole thing had a strong satirical bent and irreverently re-imagined everyone from Lincoln himself to his wife Mary Todd and the African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He also looked at the role of people like Dan Rice, who invented what we think of as the modern-day circus and included a fair bit of political satire in his shows.
When it was time to workshop the piece, Baker was thrilled to land a stellar cast that threw themselves into the work (see the list below). The group settled into a pattern of daytime rehearsals, after which Baker would take what he’d learned and rewrite what needed work overnight, to repeat the process the following day. In addition to tweaking what was already there, he wrote three completely new scenes over the course of the workshop. He plans further rewrites now that the workshop is over.
The workshop confirmed his feeling that he was on the right path with his vaudeville idea, which he had waffled on at some points during the writing.
“It showed that the structure was there and it emphasized that that was actually one of the best parts of it,” he said.
Next up is either more workshopping or a full production. “I think someone will want to do it — it’s a matter of getting it out there.”
The Lincoln: An American Vaudeville cast included Michael Bakkensen (Broadway’s Noises Off and The Man Who Came to Dinner), Ross Bickell (Broadway’s The Iceman Cometh and A Few Good Men), Robert Clohessy (Oz; Blue Bloods) , Robert Eli (Chicago Med; House of Cards), John Patrick Hayden (Shadowboxing; Daredevil), Billy Eugene Jones (Broadway’s Passing Strange and Gem of the Ocean) Kate MacCluggage (The Knick; one-woman show Grounded at Virginia Stage ), Kellie Overbey (Drama Desk Award nominee; That’s What She Said), Noble Shropshire (Broadway’s Drowsy Chaperone and Not About Nightingales) and Susan Kelechi Watson (Louie; Broadway’s A Naked Girl on the Appian Way). The workshop was directed by Center Stage’s Associate Artistic Director, Hana Sharif, with musical direction by Nathan Roberts.
Photos courtesy of Center Stage.