Photo: A Walk to Respect (on the road)

Reflections on Seeing the Same Play Six Times in Seven Days

Posted on December 04, 2023 by Andrew Spector, TPF Fellow 2023/24

Editor's Note: Email bduda@thepattersonfoundation.org to learn more about how you can bring this inspirational play to your community. The performance is 55 minutes, followed by a 30-minute panel discussion that centers on the importance of turning outward to discover shared community aspirations.

 

From November 3–10, I supported the cast and crew of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: A Walk to Respect for six performances in front of hundreds of audience members while on the road in Phoenix, AZ, and Reading, PA.

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: A Walk to Respect is a one-act play by The Patterson Foundation's award-winning playwright Beth Duda, with original spoken word poetry by Cedric Hameed. The play is a powerful illustration of how two men confronted their differences with courage and compassion at a time when our divided nation faced annihilation, forging a friendship that helped to end the Civil War and reunite our nation.

I'm returning to Sarasota reminded of the power of rigorous text study. My Jewish community has a long tradition of this. Indeed, according to Rabbinic Judaism, it is considered a mitzvah, or commandment, to study the Torah. For thousands of years, Jews have come together in a beit midrash, or house of learning, to study and debate Torah, often in havruta, or a small group of 2-5 students.

What strikes me about the Jewish tradition of Torah study is that we've been studying and debating the same texts for thousands of years. The same story of the Five Books of Moses, along with the same rabbinical debates on Jewish law and theology as presented in the Talmud and Mishnah. Of course, new commentary is written every day, but the discussion is still rooted in the same texts.

Not to say Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: A Walk to Respect is equivalent to the Torah or any other holy text, but I felt like a student in a beit midrash while on the road with the cast and crew watching the play again and again and again. Holy texts are so compelling because their stories elevate perennial questions like "What is the meaning of life?" and "What happens after we die?" Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: A Walk to Respect does a similar thing.

For instance, the perennial question of a gradualist vs. immediate or evolutionary vs. revolutionary approach to change. Despite being against slavery, Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union more than he wanted to end slavery. He believed slavery would "die a slow death" over the course of 100 years. Douglass, on the other hand, wanted slavery abolished immediately. In this story, while slavery ended much quicker than Lincoln's 100-year prediction (which would have put slavery ending around 1960), his gradualist approach to issues like equal pay for black Union soldiers generally won out. Douglass reflected in his later years that he learned to appreciate Lincoln's careful approach. What was right at the time? When should we be more gradual, and when more immediate? What's the same and different with today's issues?

Or the question of whether to engage with people who seem to not honor us as humans. I can only imagine how disrespected Douglass, who had been previously enslaved, must have felt by Lincoln's gradualist approach to ending slavery. Was Douglass's civil discourse approach with Lincoln right? What about engaging with people today who advocate for policies that make us not feel honored as humans?

There aren't clear answers to these questions and many others that arise from the play. The same goes for the deep questions of the Torah and other sacred books. I imagine that's why, in part, Torah study, particularly in havruta, or small groups of 2-5 students, is considered a mitzvah, or commandment. Through rigorous study, we better understand the questions, build meaningful relationships, and ultimately arrive at more thoughtful answers. How can you build more rigorous study into your life? What content is worth engaging with again and again and again? Who could you study with that will challenge you?

 


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