March 8, 2022

The Lincoln vs. Douglass Debate:
World Premiere Production of a Debate That Never Was…But Should Have Been

As pictured (l to r) in previous professional productions, Robert Gleason portrays Abraham Lincoln and Fred Morsell portrays Frederick Douglass.The complicated relationship between President Abraham Lincoln and famed Abolitionist/Statesman Frederick Douglass will be brought to life during the world premiere of a heated debate that never was but should have been. Charles Cook, an Emmy-nominated documentarian who resides locally, has reached back in history to create a riveting stage production that draws from the actual speeches and writings of two 19th century leaders who had much at stake should their goals not be achieved. Acclaimed professional actors Fred Morsell and Robert Gleason will take center stage as Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln as they wage a charged, albeit imaginary, debate about the future of Black freedmen in a post-slavery America, the prospects for racial equality, and the unforeseen challenges of Black and White Americans in post-Civil war years. Enhanced by song, the production will also feature the WCU Gospel Choir as music is used to highlight dramatic points made during the debate. The first-of-its-kind production will take place March 23 at 7 p.m. in Asplundh Hall on West Chester University’s campus, 700 South High Street in West Chester. The production is open to the public. Tickets are $15 for adults and free for students. For information, visit

From historical occurrences that took place from the antebellum period through the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, all words spoken by Lincoln and Douglass in the 90-minute original production have been taken from actual speeches and writings made during the men’s lifetimes. The accuracy of the debate, in word and spirit, has been fact-checked and approved by distinguished scholar and Douglass biographer James Trotman, professor emeritus of English at West Chester University.

“The production brings an exchange of two of the most significant American thinkers on matters of race and society,” says West Chester University Professor of English William Lalicker, who is helping to facilitate the production directed by Cook. “Lincoln and Douglass met briefly, but never debated their intensely held, passionately progress-oriented, yet sometimes sharply different views. This production arrives at a moment when America faces a serous reckoning on the same questions Lincoln and Douglass might have debated so there is much we can learn from the exchange of ideas between these towering minds.”

The work comes to the University at a fitting moment. The unique production coincides with the University’s 150th anniversary celebration and the 25th+ anniversary of the Frederick Douglass Institute, which acts as an educational and cultural resource for advancing multicultural studies across the curriculum and for deepening the intellectual heritage of Frederick Douglass in the community.

Cook approached the Frederick Douglass Institute in 2019 to inquire whether the Institute would be interested in supporting the project. Numerous individuals from across the University have raised their hands high to participate in the production’s visit to campus, including faculty and students from the Fredrick Douglass Institute’s board, the University’s Honors College, and the Department of Theatre and Dance. Among those student organizations involved in the project’s launch include the WCU Gospel Choir as well as the Friars’ Society and the Abbe Society.

“West Chester University is deeply honored to be the site for Charles Cook’s creative vision,” says Chris Fiorentino, president of West Chester University. “The words spoken by these two dominant figures in American history reflect the importance of engaging in meaningful conversations that advocate the protection and practice of civil rights.

“Quite obviously, the need for such conversations continue today. West Chester University supports these voices amidst a movement that requires engagement in critical thinking and problem solving to overcome systemic inequities in our lifetime. In the spirit of propelling our nation’s unfinished business forward, this production serves as the necessary catalyst to increase our collective cultural competence and to plant seeds of justice.”

Douglass and Lincoln Debate

West Chester University’s 150th Diversity Speaker Series brings the original production to the Chester County community. The Lincoln vs. Douglass Debate is made possible by the generosity of the following community partners: BB&T (Now Truist), Essential Utilities, and West Pharmaceutical Services, Inc.

About the Professional Actors

The main actors in the production were selected for their previously successful performances as the historical figures in other professional plays. Known best for his portrayal of Frederick Douglass in many of the nation’s Douglass centennial celebrations, Morsell has appeared both on and off Broadway in numerous professional plays and musicals. With more than 30 years of acting experience, his extensive background includes work in film and television, including appearances on Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law. Morsell has previously journeyed from his home in Montana to portray Douglass at West Chester University.

In-depth historical research and audience interactivity have become hallmarks of Gleason’s portrayals. In addition to taking on roles as Abraham Lincoln, Gleason’s acting repertoire includes the portrayal of numerous historical characters, including Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Alexander Graham Bell, and others. His characterizations continue to be popular at schools, museums, historic sites and libraries throughout the U.S., including the White House Visitor’s Center, Ford’s Theatre, the National Archives, and the Library of Congress.

Moderator of the debate will be Eric Herr, whose resonant voice will be familiar to Philadelphia-area radio listeners.

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