BFs — Just Not Forever

Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly, clothed her — and revealed too much

March 21, 2013
Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, left, and Naomi Jacobson play Lizzy K. and Mary T.
Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, left, and Naomi Jacobson play Lizzy K. and Mary T.

Picture this: The former first lady’s dressmaker and best friend pens a tell-all book about her years in the White House. She reveals intimate details about a revered president and his difficult wife, just three years after a tragic twist of fate.

“Behind the Scenes or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House” was published in 1868. Author Elizabeth Keckly was vilified for violating the privacy of her employer, Mary Todd Lincoln, who never forgave her.

The story of their friendship has found its way to Arena Stage as “Mary T. & Lizzy K.,” which details Mary’s (Naomi Jacobson), Abe’s (Thomas Adrian Simpson) and Keckly’s (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) love for and frustration with one another.

“It was going to be a play about Lincoln and the choosing of his Cabinet,” says playwright Tazewell Thompson. “But every time I would read something, inevitably in the footnotes there was something about Elizabeth Keckly, who I’d never heard of.”

“Mary T. & Lizzy K.” swings back and forth between the day President Lincoln was shot and Mary’s post-White House stint in a mental institution.

In those scenes, Keckly (or a hallucination thereof — it’s unclear) and Mary hash out their issues with each other. They fight about Keckly’s book, which was never meant to be scandalous: She wrote it to humanize Mary, who was widely seen then (and now) as a mentally ill spendthrift.

As Thompson makes clear, Mary was probably both. But she was also a grieving wife and mother, an inadvertent celebrity and a loyal friend to Elizabeth.

“They had an extraordinarily close, intimate relationship,” Thompson says. “When Abraham Lincoln died and Mary returned to the White House, it was Elizabeth she was calling for.”

A Lizzy K. Original: Want to see an example of Elizabeth Keckly’s real-life dressmaking skills? The National Museum of American History (1400 Constitution Ave. NW; Americanhistory.si.edu) owns a velvet bodice and skirt that Keckly created for Mary Todd Lincoln for Washington’s 1861-1862 winter social season. Find it in the First Ladies exhibit.

Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW; through April 28, $50-$100; 202-488-3300. (Waterfront/SEU)
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Katie Aberbach | March 21, 2013