Tazewell Thompson faced the same dilemma as Shakespeare did with Henry VIII, in constructing a drama about historical figures: how do you write about people who have influenced recent events and for whom there is a wealth of accounts readily available? The Lincoln White House. How many hundreds of biographies have been written about Lincoln? How many thousands of histories and commentaries about the Civil War era fill shelves in bookstores? How many millions of original documents can be accessed in libraries and personal collections? How do you present something fresh to contemporary audiences about events merely 150 years ago? This is Thompson’s challenge for a world premier of Mary T. and Lizzy K. at Arena Stage.
For the 15 or so years that Molly Smith has been the Artistic Director for Arena Stage, she has been directing the theatre’s mission to promote American theatre. The theatre specializes in productions of classic playwrights, O’Neil, Miller, Williams, and musicals, Music Man, Guys and Dolls, new plays making the circuit of regional theatres, and commissioning new plays. Mary T. and Lizzy K. is part of Arena Stage’s American Presidents Project, which aims to develop new plays focused on Washington, D.C.’s First Family’s. Rather than docu-drama or bio-stage productions, this project hopes to bring humanity to the men and women who have lead our country. This play is less Lincoln (as in the recent movie about negotiating and debating the 13th Admendemnt’s passage), and more what might have gone on behind the walls of the home of these people we know quite well.
Today’s society, weighted down with information over-load, tends to simplify historical figures into sound-bites for easy recall. Lincoln: the Civil War President. Mary Todd Lincoln: the society First Lady, beleaguered and deranged by her sons’ and husband’s deaths. Elizabeth Keckly: the First Lady’s seamstress, who walked behind her and sat next to her in the gallery of the House of Representatives in the movie Lincoln. Rather than spot light the president in this play about the First Family, Thompson illuminates the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly, both in its affections and oppressions. Through this he circles back to illuminating our social history, both our attachments and debts unpaid.
Thompson’s primary decision in writing the script is deciding whether to create dialogue and interactions that are authentic to the era, but distant to our sensibilities, or to build on the concepts of what might have transpired between the women, and present them in the style of contemporary drama that audiences might relate to today. I believe he chose the later. In some ways, the character development, the story telling, and dramatic tensions and releases are more akin to the recent production of Good People, than to the movie Lincoln (which strove to be historically accurate in image and language).
Mary T. and Lizzy K. is a series of imbedded stories starting during the time of Mrs. Lincoln’s confinement to a sanitarium after Lincoln’s assassination, then rewinding through the day before his death. On that day, Lizzy, as “Mrs. President” affectionally called Ms. Keckly, was assembling a dress for her to wear at the Ford’s Theatre. Mrs. Lincoln is the personality which must be attired correctly. Lizzy K. is the seamstress, along with her apprentice, Ivy, who have the skills to stitch together the cloth that makes the woman. Lincoln appears frequently to give context of place and time, not as the President, but as the President slipping backstage to be Mary Todd’s husband.
For the actors in this production, the decision is how to present familiar characters in three dimensions. We know them in two-dimensions: photograph and narrative accounts. Naomi Jacobson brings to us Mary Todd Lincoln, in her delirious raving, affectionate story telling, and arrogant dismissal of Lizzy K.’s frequent demands for payments for the years of service and hundreds of dresses that she has created. Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris stands tall. She nearly overshadows Mary T., who stands on a trunk for fittings. Or, sits firmly in her sewing chair, to present her loyal, yet stern seamstress. She will fulfill her duty, while resenting her “freedom” from 30 years of slavery, only to become an unpaid worker for the First Lady.
To back up Lizzy K. is Ivy (Joy Jones), her apprentice, who speaks with the dialect of the islands, where she had been enslaved, economically and sexually. Ivy is energetic and ambitions, but respects her station. Where she lacks in education (e.g. never taught to read or write), she compensates with talents (e.g. memory and understanding of instructions). Her vibrance provides the energy for both of the other women whom must contain their private desires because of social rank.
Similarly, Lincoln (Thomas Adrian Simpson) provides a humanizing role, as loyal husband, aware of the “girls” telling stories in the backroom, but ignorant of his wife’s evasion of paying her bills. Simpson brings Lincoln’s self-doubting, tall man trying to not stand above his peers or wife, to some of the most passionate and affectionate scenes of the play. Simpson and Jacobson bring the height of the play in a scene in which they have both collapsed on the floor in emotional exhaustion, curled in each other’s arms against the losses of their sons, and the sons the nation to war. Together, a wife and husband hug each other, hoping to hold on through the struggles of life.
While this couple retreats from the view of society, Lizzy K. continues to seek restitution for her uncompensated work, from Mary T. as well as other patrons who show off her dresses and dismiss her with, “By wearing your dresses, you will repaid by commissions from other ladies who wish to look as good as me.” But, each layer of commissions becomes another unpaid dresses attracting more work. Hmmm. Sounds like blogs written for free, to be re-blogged for free, to be Liked for free… Freedom after 30 years of slavery, might require a book that someone must purchase. What price will we pay for Liberty?