Arena Stage pays tribute to Elizabeth Keckley, seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln

April 11, 2013

Elizabeth Keckley, the talented seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln, was born a slave, her body bloodied through beatings as a teen. But she later worked to buy her freedom and became a successful DC businesswomen, starting a Washington-based relief agency to aid wounded black soldiers. If you already knew about this remarkable life, you will appreciate more in Mary T and Lizzy K now playing at the Arena Stage until April 28.


Stephanie Myers, fourth from the left, presents Tazewell Thompson with the Keckley Award. Also pictured, from left to right, are Marilyn Franklin, Karen Carrington, Melody Webb, ; Bernadette Tolson, Sondra Henderson, Ruth Marshall. (Stephanie Myers/Stephanie Myers)

The roles and dialogue of Abraham Lincoln and his sporadic emotionally unglued wife, Mary T  bubble with enough artful passion to move you from your seat into the storyline that eventually concludes with the terrible assassination of the 16th president.  But for all the dramatic encounters between Keckley and Mary Lincoln, Lizzy comes off too subdued and surrendered  as in her short time in the White House as a dressmaker, she shared major intimate moments with both Lincolns in their private lives.    

Keckley explained this intimacy in her biography, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. At the death of Willie, the Lincolns’ youngest son, she shared the grief, observing the president, “burying his head in his hands and his tall frame convulsing with emotions.” She suffered through Mrs. Lincoln being thrown into convulsions “over seeing the pale face of her dead boy.” And she stood in the same parlor that held the casket of young Willie to share the most painful moments as Mrs. Lincoln grieved for her fallen husband.  

Lizzy saw things unfamiliar to most audiences like Lincoln’s fondness for  keeping pet goats and how she helped raise funds for Mary Lincoln by selling some of her best clothing since she was not properly provided for by the federal treasury. And she was Lincoln’s traveling companion until her death on July 16, 1882.  

Despite the sometimes underwhelming portrayal of Lizzy there was much to like about the intriguing play which captured the background tensions of the civil war, pitted against the private lives of both the president and “Mrs. President” as Mary Todd often called herself. 

The venerable Molly Smith, the Arena Stage Director, lauded playwright/director Tazewell Thompson for his “glorious gift with language which helps us to see the humanity of these remarkable people.”  Thompson, who has directed close to two dozen plays at Arena, such as M. Butterfly, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences, told me he wrote this play for his mother and grandmother. Like so many black women, he did not want Keckley buried in the footnotes of history. 

He wanted her to be remembered.  

And while he did not bring Keckley to the forefront in his play with trumpets blowing and banging cymbals, he did tap into and give credence to a revival about Keckley that is catching on nationwide .  Keckley received a cameo appearance in the movie Lincoln, two book about her have been recently published,  the dress that Keckley designed for Mary Lincoln to wear at her husband’s second inauguration is held by the Smithsonian’s American History Museum and a quilt she designed from scraps of materials left over from dresses she made for Mrs. Lincoln is shown in a book, The Threads of Time, the Fabric of History by Rosemary  Reed Miller, a local writer and businesswoman.  

Stephanie Myers, national co-chair of Black Women for Positive Change, awarded Thompson the Keckley Award that she has presented to several Congresspersons, for his contributions to theatre.   Myers said: “Keckley's memory lives on--a Mom born into slavery who bought her son's freedom but then lost him to gun violence in the Civil War.

Maybe her story will inspire other mothers who have lost children to gun violence o be tough and keep pushing to succeed. “Lizzy supported President Lincoln during her era and we're supporting President Obama during our era...Much has changed and much has remained the same.” 

Reynolds is an ordained minister and the author of six books. She is a former editor and columnist for USA Today.
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