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Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009 08:22 pm

A new musical spotlights those who knew Lincoln

Local playwright brings celebratory show to Springfield

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Kristin Jamison, Joel Tinsley and Sylvia Burke in a vignette from The Spirit of Lincoln entitled “The Underground Guides.”
PHOTO COURTESY KEN BRADBURY

In the second act of Ken Bradbury’s The Spirit of Lincoln, musician Barry Cloyd, who serves as the show’s narrator, says that over 16,000 books have been written about our nation’s 16th president.

When the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission asked Ken Bradbury to write a Lincoln play, Bradbury, who had already produced five Lincoln shows, wanted to try something different. “I had to do something new or nothing at all,” he says. Bradbury, also a volunteer piano player at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, set off on a yearlong quest to discover Lincoln anew.

The adventure took him across central Illinois, and led to the discovery of some new material in the form of old newspaper clippings, personal diaries and retold stories. Bradbury unearthed a long-out-of-print journal from Petersburg, a collection of clippings from White Hall and several other local documents rarely used in telling Lincoln’s story. In all, Bradbury talked to nearly 50 sources for the hybrid musical and monologue show which he “wrote over e-mail” with composer and longtime collaborator Roger Wainwright.

The playwright, who has published more than 200 works spanning 37 years, found writing about Lincoln daunting. “I write a lot of comedy but my serious plays are often my favorites. When writing Lincoln, I always try to avoid a cartoonish approach even though he’s something of an icon,” Bradbury explains. He says he was struck by the level of respect most historians have for Lincoln. “I expected to find cynicism among the experts, but those who thoroughly know him have the most respect for him. It’s really astounding after 200 years,” he says.

The Spirit of Lincoln is not really a play about the president. Instead, Bradbury tries to illuminate the mystery of Lincoln by presenting accounts of those who knew him and were affected by him. The play is more a story of the man’s lingering influence on people rather than a narrative of Lincoln.

In fact, Lincoln’s time on stage is brief, but hearing Keith Bradbury recite President-elect Lincoln’s brief but profound farewell address at Springfield is a treat. Good voices fill the show’s cast, which includes well-known Illinois folksinger Barry Cloyd as well as Roger Davis, Harvey Mack, Joel Tinsley, Kristin Jamison and several other talented performers.

Those they portray include hotel employees, museum volunteers, Civil-War soldiers, state officials, slave owners, historians and others who either encountered Lincoln or were inspired by him. Perhaps the show’s most effective segment is one that ties together the history of a black slave in pre-Civil War Jacksonville trying to earn his freedom with the struggle of a 1970s civil rights activist reconciling her actions before buying a home in the same town.

A show mostly of monologues and half-spoken songs can feel a bit folksy and awkward at times, which is somehow fitting for a play about Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps Bradbury himself, on stage as New Salem resident and Lincoln business partner William Berry, sums it up best, saying that this is a story told not by those who called him “Mister President,” but by those who called him “Abraham.”

The Spirit of Lincoln comes to Springfield’s Hoogland Center for the Arts on March 6 and 7 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $16 for adults and $15 for seniors and children and can be purchased at 523-2787 or Scfta.org.

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