Carson School to host world premiere reading of Kirk’s ‘A House Divided’
calendar icon17 Nov 2023
Lincoln, Neb.--The Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film will host the world premiere reading of “A House Divided,” a new play by Professor of Theatre Christina Kirk, on Sunday, Nov. 19 at 2 p.m. in the Studio Theatre. Admission is free and open to the public.
A panel discussion, facilitated by Kirk, will follow the reading, which will include New York-based playwright and novelist Kia Corthron, who serves as dramaturg for the project; Kenneth J. Winkle, Sorensen Professor of American History at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln; and Professor of Film Richard Endacott, who is also a screenwriter, producer and director.
“A House Divided” examines the distressing choices facing Abraham Lincoln that threaten to unravel his family and the country during a week in 1863 when Mary Lincoln’s half-sister, Emilie Todd Helm, visits the White House. Helm, a fiercely loyal Confederate, refuses to pledge allegiance to the Union when trying to cross the border to return to Kentucky after her Confederate husband’s death in battle. Unsure of what else to do, Lincoln suggests the soldiers send her to the White House.
“About 15 years ago, I saw a PBS special about Mary and Abraham Lincoln, and there was a mention of this moment at the height of the Civil War when Mary’s Confederate sister visited the White House,” Kirk said. “That was so compelling to me, and I thought, wow, there could be a play there. I sat down almost immediately and wrote an outline for a play, and then I thought, I don’t have time to deal with this. Maybe I’ll write a play when I retire.”
She put the outline away, but she decided to come back to the project during her faculty leave last spring.
“The funny part was, as I started to do the research, characters I had invented in the outline turned out to be actual figures in history,” Kirk said. “I loved doing the research and teasing all of that out.”
Kirk said right now is an interesting time to examine Lincoln’s impact again.
“I think people are looking to Lincoln in our time because many of us are wondering are we headed toward a Civil War?” she said. “We are so polarized right now, and it’s affecting families that are on either side of a political spectrum. We are looking at these kinds of issues and thinking, ‘Can I sit at the table at Thanksgiving and be with my family?’ What does it mean to navigate different points of view? I think Lincoln was a genius about that, in terms of bringing lots of people to the table. He has a lot to teach us about how to work with our rivals.”
But while Lincoln somehow managed to keep the country together during this time, his own family was unraveling.
“We look back with the benefit of time on Lincoln and know him to be this great leader,” Kirk said. “But in his own time, people were complaining right and left about choices that he was making, and he was vilified by many, even though he was trying to keep the country together.”
Two characters that feature prominently in Kirk’s play are Elizabeth Keckley, a seamstress, activist and writer who served as the personal dressmaker and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, and William Slade, Abraham Lincoln’s valet and White House Usher.
“I thought these two individuals were fascinating. Both Lincoln and Mary have these very intimate, important relationships where they open up and have private moments with these two people who are African American,” Kirk said. “And Keckley and Slade were both actively involved in progressive movements— Elizabeth Keckley more overtly because she founded and led the Contraband Relief Association, which was created to help freed slaves find voice and agency. William Slade was actively involved in trying to get African Americans to have leadership roles in the military.”
Slade was more reticent to bring those issues up directly to Lincoln so as not to overstep his role.
“Part of the conflict in the play involves Lizzy encouraging Slade to use his voice to influence Lincoln,” Kirk said. “These are characters that come up sometimes in the history books or may appear briefly in films, but they are main characters in this script. They have a lot of stage time with Mary and Lincoln.”
Kirk said there probably have been more books published about Lincoln than any other person on the planet, other than Jesus and maybe Napoleon.
“And yet I still think there’s more to be said about this person and his family,” she said. “I’m excited about giving voice to Mary’s story. Mary looms large in this play. But it’s really an ensemble piece. Lincoln is definitely a lead character, but it’s not just his story. It’s really a family play and a relationship play, and it’s about how we work with the people that are most intimate to us, lifting up the importance of those roles in our lives. Decisions and choices were made in the Lincoln White House that were impacted by people like Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade. I don’t think that story has been told yet.”
Kirk said her dramaturg Corthron was invaluable to the project.
“I knew I needed not only a dramaturg, but a sensitivity reader,” Kirk said. “I think it’s very important if you’re going to be writing characters that are not part of your lived experience that you find someone with the authority and the experience to look at that aspect of your work. Kia Corthron is a prolifically published and produced African American playwright and novelist. Her most recent novel is set in the same time period, and many of the things that she was writing about overlap with this play. Corthron’s work is political and there’s an important political dimension to this play. Kia and I went to graduate school together, so we knew each other, and I reached out to her and asked her if she would be willing to serve as my reader and my dramaturg, and she graciously agreed. She has been brilliant in both capacities.”
Corthron’s most recent novel, “Moon and the Mars,” tells a coming-of-age story of a young Black/Irish girl in the Five Points district in New York in the years just before and during the Civil War. Her awards include the Windham Campbell Prize for Drama, the Horton Foote Prize, the Flora Roberts Award, and more.
"Among the infinite literary pages dedicated to the 16th president, Christina Kirk's stage portrayal is unique in that it gives voice not just to Mary Todd but to Lincoln's African American intimates,” Corthron said. “’A House Divided’ is a meticulously researched work, politically invigorating and deliciously theatrical."
The reading will feature professional actors from Chicago and Omaha, as well as local talent. Students and faculty from the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film will also be involved.
“I have two students playing roles, and I have one student reading the stage directions, and I’ll probably have a student assistant director,” Kirk said.
Kirk said she hopes the play lets people think about their relationships and how they navigate differences with each other.
“I hope people think critically about how it is to relate to those whose opinions or points of view are different from their own, and that they find some empathy for what it’s like to be in conflict with someone, particularly a family member, who may see the world differently than they do,” she said. “The play asks us to consider the stakes involved in loving someone unconditionally.”
Kirk hopes “A House Divided” can eventually be produced.
“It’d be great to produce it in Lincoln, Nebraska. It would also be wonderful to produce it in Illinois, the “Land of Lincoln,” so I’ll be reaching out to producers in the Chicago area,” she said. “I’d also like to get it published, so I’ll likely be submitting it to contests and be looking for other ways to get it out there.”
Kirk has had fun writing the play and hopes to do more of that in the future.
“This is definitely a new venture for me. Most of my scholarship, to date, has been as a director and as an actor,” she said. “This was a departure for me, but it’s what I want to do now. I’ve already got my idea for my next play.”
Kirk previously served as the director of the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film and executive director of the Nebraska Repertory Theatre from 2019-2022. Her directing credits include The Living Theatre, New Dramatists, assisting Liviu Ciulei at Arena Stage and numerous productions for Otterbein University Theatre and Otterbein Summer Theatre. She recently performed the role of Linda in the Nebraska Repertory Theatre’s 2022 production of “Death of a Salesman” and has performed at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, the Illinois Repertory Theatre, CATCO (Contemporary American Theatre Company), among others.
The Studio Theatre is located on the first floor of the Temple Building, which is located at 12th and R streets on the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s city campus.