Elizabeth Keckly was a freed slave when she met Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckly, a gifted seamstress, became the private dressmaker for the first lady; a century and a half later, for Tazewell Thompson’s play about their improbable friendship, “Mary T. & Lizzy K.,” the Arena Stage costume department was tasked with re-creating Keckly’s iconic couture creations.
“It all starts in two places: the script and good research,” said Joe Salasovich, Arena’s costume director. The recon included a trip to Gettysburg; a visit to the Smithsonian, where a purple velvet gown of Mrs. Lincoln’s, designed by Keckly, is on display; a trek to Elizabeth Keckly’s final resting place (Keckly’s grave has been relocated twice; her remains spent over 50 years in an unmarked grave at National Harmony Memorial Park in Largo, until funds were raised for a marker, a bronze-on-granite slab, in 2010); and “pick[ing] every book that we could off the shelf about these women.” Total time spent researching and sewing: almost three months.
In Gettysburg, the costume team met a woman who had dedicated her retirement to creating all the materials necessary to make “a sincere, exact replica of a crinoline hoop” which, Salasovich claimed, “was the biggest skirt moment in fashion.”
“Everything was as couture as it gets,” said Salasovich. “It’s incredible. There’s a reason it’s on display at the Smithsonian.”
Also, it’s expensive: For the dresses in this show, the cost of labor far exceeds the cost of the material, and Salasovich estimated that “the material alone could be the equivalent of 40 pairs of Levi’s.”
In “Mary T. & Lizzy K,” said Salasovich, “you actually will get to see the process kind of from start to finish. . . . It should be a beautiful moment to see the humble beginnings of how things come together and how the finished product ends up.”
Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris is making her Arena Stage debut as Keckly. “In the arena of a fitting room, [Keckly] called the shots. She would tell you: You’re going to wear this. She was a trendsetter. And I think that’s what drew Mary Todd Lincoln to her. I think they were both women who were maybe a little ahead of their time, and they both had something to say.”
Although in any other circumstance, the power dynamic would clearly have been in Lincoln’s favor, the relationship between a public figure and the person entrusted with her attire is possibly one of the most intimate-yet-professional bonds there is.
“It is a moment of vulnerability,” said Salasovich. “Look at it this way: In any relationship like this, it’s a situation where they’re meeting on the same plane. They both need each other so much. It’s very high-stakes for both of them. . . . They’re both bringing something very specific to the fitting room. What I find most intriguing is they both need each other very much, for different reasons.”
“Elizabeth Keckly’s creations allowed Mary Todd Lincoln to express herself fully and allowed Elizabeth to express herself fully as well,” said Luqmaan-Harris.
In her time, Mary Todd Lincoln struggled to be accepted by the masses. Americans judged her harshly for her perceived “excess,” Salasovich said. “It’s a big thing when Michelle Obama wears the same dress that we’ve seen already; I think it was almost exactly the opposite in [Lincoln’s] time.” While FLOTUS can’t even jet to Target without her outfit being dissected down to the stitches, Lincoln “had to fight as a first lady to try to get attention, even though her husband was Abraham Lincoln,” said Salasovich.
“I almost wonder,” he said, “if Mary Todd Lincoln would have been exactly the first lady that people talk about now and really enjoy.”
March 15 through April 28, 1101 Sixth St. SW, 202-554-9066, www.arenastage.org.
“The Motherf--er With the Hat” scored a two-week extension over at Studio Theatre, now closing March 24 instead of Sunday. Exciting news! Due to a scheduling conflict, actor Quentin Mare, who played AA-sponsor and smoothie-aficionado Ralph, is being replaced for this extra chunk of the run by Jahi Kearse.
Kearse, who has worked at Studio a number of times before (most recently in “Passing Strange”), had auditioned for “Hat” in New York but didn’t get the part. He signed on to do a show in Atlanta. When Studio called to see if he could jump in, he said yes — even though he doesn’t exactly have a ton of turnaround time: “Two Trains Running,” Kearse’s Atlanta production, closes Sunday. He’ll fly back to Washington the next day, have three days of rehearsal and be in the show starting March 14.
“It’s a little crazy. A little terrifying,” said Kearse, who spent a couple of days in Washington this week getting acquainted with the cast and crew. “What it means is, I have to dive in as opposed to dipping my toe in the pool.”
Kearse said he’s drawn to Ralph because “he lives in two worlds. He lives in a world of a recovered addict, and then he lives in the world of one who tries to save those who are in his same position. . . . He’s a dark guy and a light guy. And in a lot of ways, I am that myself.”
Kearse knows that joining a cast at this stage of the run is a bit of “a shake-up,” but also that the time crunch is forcing him to focus. “I have to just bring what I am and allow that to exist in what everyone else has successfully brought.”
Through March 24, 1501 14th St. NW, 202-232-7267, www.studiotheatre.org.