Arts and Culture

On the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Louisville audiences will get an opportunity to go inside the mind of the man who fired the shot.

The Frazier History Museum will present “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” an original play written by Frazier teaching artist and historical interpreter Tony Dingman, on at 7 p.m Tuesday at the museum on Main Street. Dingman used an array of primary source material, taken from the writings of assassin John Wilkes Booth, his younger sister Asia, and various eyewitness accounts of the assassination and the 12-day manhunt that followed, ending in Booth’s capture and death.

Booth was a well-known actor in his day, and toured the United States performing Shakespeare and other classic works. He was particularly known for being dashing and acrobatic, like the Errol Flynn of his time. After shooting President Lincoln in the State Box at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, he leaped onto the stage, and many of the audience members recognized him instantly.

Dingman said Booth’s experience performing Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” likely inspired his shout of “Sic semper tyrannis” before he fled the theatre through the stage door.

“He was familiar with the idea and the concept of tyrants, and often he speaks of the necessity of ridding the people of a tyrant, which is where the title comes from. ‘Sic semper tyrannus’ means something like “thus always to tyrants,” Dingman said.

In an effort to convey the media frenzy around the search for Lincoln’s killer, the Frazier will take to Twitter in a “live-tweeting” event, recounting the events of the manhunt at approximately the same times they actually happened between April 14 and 26, 1865.

“We can give you a sense of the fervor. It was the largest manhunt in American history at that point–the number of men and the number of resources that were involved in trying to find this one man, John Wilkes Booth, is astounding,” Dingman said.

Dingman appears in the play as Booth and several of the eyewitnesses, along with fellow Frazier teaching artists Kelly Moore and Eric Frantz.

As an actor, Dingman was intrigued by the idea of finding the human story behind the historical figure of Booth. Using Booth’s journals and writings, along with letters between Booth and his sister, Dingman attempted to understand Booth’s conviction and certainty. At the beginning of the play, Dingman (as Booth) has a quiet moment with his back turned to the audience, and he uses that time to get into Booth’s mindset.

“What I have to think for that moment is that the choice I—as the character—have made is right,” Dingman said.

 

Tara Anderson is the host and producer of Five Things, a podcast about the objects that tell our stories.