Even though he is a self-described Civil War buff, playwright Ken Jones didn’t realize that Abraham Lincoln spent his formative years, from age 7 through 21, living in southern Indiana. Jones, the chairman of the department of theatre and dance at NKU, began to explore this part of Lincoln’s life after being commissioned to write an outdoor drama about our 16th president.
“It was really fascinating,” Jones says. “If you can imagine Lincoln without a beard, a foot shorter and as a 7-year-old boy, you start to see a whole different side of the guy who is on the penny.”
Jones was selected after a nationwide search.
“They wanted (those of) us who got to the finals to pitch how we would combine the Lincoln years in Indiana with his presidency, so those two would weave together.”
Jones decided to start with Lincoln’s assassination and work backwards.
“A spirit of Lincoln comes down through the back of the house,” Jones says. “What happens in the play is (that) you’re watching Lincoln’s life flashing before his eyes.”
This set up is used to relate Lincoln’s childhood experiences in Indiana with situations he faced as president.
“You see scenes, like where his sister dies in childbirth,” Jones says. “You’ll then see the president taking the same words and putting them into the Gettysburg Address. You see how words he might have heard from a moment in his life help him deal with what he’s doing in (his) presidency.”
There was only one problem with finding experiences from Lincoln’s Indiana years.
“History didn’t figure out that Lincoln was going to be famous until he was living in Illinois,” Jones says. “So nobody followed him around (Indiana) writing things down. The hardest part is that in the Indiana years we have seven or eight things that we know happened, the rest is people talking about Lincoln after he died many years later.”
Jones had some help overcoming those challenges, though.
“There was a historian on my writing team named Bill Bottrell, and he’s one of the foremost authorities on Lincoln,” Jones says.
Bottrell double-checked Jones to make sure the situations were plausible.
“He would say, “Well, we don’t have proof this did happen, but we don’t have proof it didn’t happen,’ ” Jones says.
Within the parameters of historical content, Jones’ work passed the test. The play even received the endorsement of the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, but not before a rather intensive interview with Jones.
“They really drilled me on the Lincoln stuff and made a couple of suggestions which I incorporated,” Jones says. “So far, everyone that has seen it pretty much agrees that this stuff did happen or could have happened. I haven’t had anyone challenge me.”
The play, simply titled Lincoln, stars Geoffrey Wade in the title role along with Emmy winner Nikkeli DeMone and is directed by Scott Lank. It is being performed at the newly renovated Lincoln Amphitheatre in Indiana’s Lincoln State Park, which is across the highway from the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, a federally managed park. These are the very lands that young Abe roamed while in the Hoosier state.
Jones hopes the play will be an ongoing production performed every summer.
“I think that just depends on getting people out to southern Indiana and seeing the play,” Jones says.
For more information on LINCOLN, call 1-800-264-4223.