Our Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln played by Jim Sayre of Lawrenceburg, left, and Henry Clay played by George MGee of Georgetown put the finishing touches on their costumes outside the entrance to the Kennedy Center. Photo by Jonathan Palmer.Note the pronoun in the title. Abraham Lincoln belongs to all Americans, but in this case "our" refers to those of us from Kentucky, where the 16th president was born near Hodgenville, 200 years ago this month. It's where he lived his first eight years. On Monday night, February 2nd, in celebration of the bicentenary, The Kentucky Humanities Council staged a production at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. It was billed as "Our Lincoln: Kentucky's Gift to the Nation." And oh, what a gift!

Months ago I was flattered to be asked to serve as the host for the evening. I anticipated it would be a lovely evening of music and recitation--nothing flashy. It wasn't until the rehearsal on Monday afternoon that the scale of the production was revealed. A massive caravan of buses rolled up to the Kennedy Center and deposited hundreds of performers at the Concert Hall door. They had traveled many hours since leaving Kentucky and I wondered if they were all happy to temporarily escape the Commonwealth, where an ice storm last week left more than 700,000 homes and businesses without power.

It turned out that I was sharing the day with the 70-or-so musicians of the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra with John Nardolillo conducting. Seated in rising tiers behind the orchestra were 180 Lexington Singers. Downstage in front of the orchestra was the 65-voice Lexington Singers Children's Choir, sometimes joined by the American Spiritual Ensemble and the University of Kentucky Chorale. That's nearly 350 performers on stage doing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and rocking the house.

The Lexington Vintage Dance Society treated us to dances on the card at Lincoln's inaugural ball. Kentucky actors played Lincoln, Henry Clay, Billy Herndon (Abe's law partner), Mary Owens (who rejected Lincoln's marriage proposal) and Emilie Todd Helm (Lincoln's sister-in-law). I wish I'd had a camera when I saw "Abe" backstage signing autographs for the kids in the choir.

Kentucky's poet laureate, Jane Gentry, read her poem, "Alexander Gardner's November 8, 1863 Photograph of Lincoln." She stood next to a large framed copy of the portrait so all could see what had inspired her work.

I met Alan Gershwin, who set theGettysburg Address to music sung beautifully by tenor Gregory Turay. Alan has written hundreds of songs--some of his earliest composed jointly with his father, George Gershwin. When he lived in Beverley Hills, lyricist Ira Gershwin (George's brother and Alan's uncle) lived next door to Kentuckian Rosemary Clooney, who loved singing entire concerts of Gershwin tunes. For "Our Lincoln," Rosemary's brother, Nick Clooney, narrated "Lincoln Portrait" by Aaron Copeland. Nick is married to Nina Warren, who shares a whole bunch of Kentucky ancestors with me. They include Lucy Hanks, Abraham Lincoln's grandmother. I am a distant cousin of Abraham Lincoln--and so is Nick and Nina's son, George Clooney.

It wasn't a total Kentucky show and for all I know the Kennedy Center may have demanded some celebrity ringers to attract a bigger house. If so, it was a good idea and both non-Kentuckians got standing ovations. Soprano Angela Brown sang "My Country Tis of Thee" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." Violinist Mark O'Connor played "Appalachia Waltz," "Ashokan Farewell" and "Amazing Grace."

Everyone connected with the production was conscious of the show's true "star." The richly diverse cast labored in love for the man preserved our union, ended slavery and set in motion a social evolution that finally found redemption last month. It was a magical evening and I am so grateful that I got to be a part of it. It truly was "Kentucky's Gift to the Nation." The Kentucky Humanities Council should take a bow. They did right by their homey and demonstrated to Washington how to put on a show.