Mary T. & Lizzy K.Cross posted at Ms.

As the DVD of Spielberg’s latest epic, Lincoln, hit shelves last week, the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. was telling a different Lincoln story: that of Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker, former slave Elizabeth Keckley.

Keckley, author of Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, was born into slavery, bought her freedom, opened her own dressmaking shop and was eventually hired to be the personal dressmaker of the first lady. The tempestuous, intensely personal relationship between the two women—born of shopping trips, creative collaboration and the intimate hours spent in fittings— is the subject of Tazewell Thompson‘s new play, Mary T. and Lizzy K.

When Mary Todd Lincoln left the White House, she suffered a financial crisis. Thinking to help her former employer, Keckley wrote her book in which, as Thompson told the Ms. Blog,

She not only talked about her life as a girl, as a slave and the horrors that she suffered. She wrote about everything she witnessed in the White House. She wrote about Mary’s emotional swings, her spending habits, the outrageous arguments she had with the president, her insane jealousy.

Keckley’s plan was a total failure. Though the book created sympathy for Lincoln, Keckley was widely castigated. It did not sell and Lincoln never spoke to her friend again. Keckley died in a home for destitute women that she, in better times, had founded.

The 100-minute play imagines a conversation between the two women that never happened. It asks, “What if Keckley had come to visit Lincoln when she was confined to Bellevue Place?” (Keckley did, in fact, try numerous times to visit her former friend at the Illinois mental institution, but Lincoln never admitted her.) “What if they had made up?”

Mary T. & Lizzy K.

From an opening scene in which Keckley is finally allowed to visit, Thompson takes the audience back in time, allowing them to witness some of the most intimate moments not only of the women’s friendship but also of Mary’s relationship with her husband. Years of research by Thompson inform the detail-rich characterizations, but on the page the play looks more like something by existentialist Samuel Beckett than an historical costume drama. That’s because, as Naomi Jacobson, who plays Lincoln, told Ms.,

I think he’s distilled [Mary] into a kind of essence. It’s a psychological, emotional portrait. There is a fierceness to her. There is a fighting spirit to her. She is a survivor.

Lincoln shares this fierceness with Keckley, who, unlike her mercurial employer, stays constant. Actor Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris says that, as an educated professional, Keckley was not the type of woman to feign inferiority with her white employer:

She has clawed her way out of the world of slavery and wants nothing to do with that world. (And not in a negative way—because she did actually quite a lot for free slaves who came through D.C. She created the Contraband Relief Association, because there was no like guidebook for a freed slave, and she saw that people didn’t know what to do, didn’t know where to go, had no support.) From what I’ve read about their relationship, her assertiveness was possibly why they worked so well together.

Nevertheless, the women for whom Keckley worked, Lincoln included, often failed to pay her for her work, and the sense of entitlement underlying Lincoln’s character manifests as racial privilege in one particularly fraught moment. Asked how she approaches playing a character so unaware of her privilege, Jacobson said,

I think these two women had a similar kind of spirit, but what is surrounding every particle of the atmosphere between these two women is the slave/owner relationship. In the air all around them is a given of inequality due to skin color. But then you’ve got Elizabeth giving Mary instruction. Elizabeth becomes not just a confidante friend but also a caretaker and mother. So these women are negotiating a whole set of relationships both spoken and unspoken.

Mary T. and Lizzy K. invites audiences to go on an fantastical journey as well as a historical one. In imagining, “What if these two friends had made up?” Thompson essentially asks us to imagine, “What if the end of the Civil War had represented true racial reconciliation?” But though the audience will find their hearts warmed by witnessing two friends reunited, the truth is never too far away. Abraham Lincoln will be shot. Mary will witness it. Keckley will die destitute. And the races, alas, will not yet have put aside all their differences 148 years later.

The play is well worth seeing. Reconciliation, after all, is a process, and storytelling can be an important part of it. If you’re in D.C., spend a night at Arena Stage imagining a different ending to the story.

To read more of the interviews with the artists, click here.

Photos of Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris as Keckley, Naomi Jacobson as Lincoln and Joy Jones as Ivy (Keckley’s apprentice) by Scott Suchman.

What made you want to write a play about Elizabeth Keckly and Mary Todd Lincoln?

Thompson: I was actually commissioned to write play in 2001 and the only stipulation was that it be set in Washington. When Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena, said “Washington” I immediately thought political and I thought Lincoln. The idea to make it part of Arena’s American Presidents Projects came later.

As I was looking through various books, some of them very academic, very dry, I kept coming across these footnotes that said “Elizabeth Keckly, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave, Four Years in the White House.” The footnotes were always connected with Mary Todd Lincoln. So I sought out that book because I really wasn’t getting anywhere, and this is what ignited me.

Keckly’s book is less dry than the other accounts because the way she came into the world, and her life on the plantation and the nefarious humiliations and whippings she received, what she had to subject herself too, and how she pulled herself up out of all of that and bought her freedom, and then she had this incredible business in Washington where she made dresses for Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and Mrs. Robert E. Lee and some of the highest society in Washington until Mary came along and said, no, you will work now just for me.

What was the nature of their relationship?

Thompson: It was a real complex relationship at a time when the country was being torn apart because of slavery. Here are these two women born the same year from completely different backgrounds: One, a former slave who bought her freedom; the other who was born into great wealth. And they end up coming together through the White House years and become very close friends. One was the personal and exclusive dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln, and the other was a person who had all kinds of psychological problems. And yet she sought out this black woman, not only as her seamstress and dressmaker but her emotional support.

Jacobson: Mary Todd was a seamstress in her own right. From the time she was a child she loved it. And she would go and buy fabric and design clothes. She made a lot of her own clothes. Seems to me that there was a meeting of the spirits, a meeting of the minds, a meeting of artists coming together. And then they would go on shopping expeditions together and buy fabric and buttons and talk about this. So they were creating together. And then you’re being fitted and touched and that kind of intimacy. So I can imagine the hours and hours spent half-naked in a fitting, you talk about everything. And Elizabeth became close to Abe Lincoln and close to the family and close to the kids. And Mary didn’t have a lot of other friends. And I think Lizzy was also a powerful, independent, fierce survivor and I think these two women had a similar kind of spirit. Then layer on to that what is surrounding every particle of the atmosphere between these two women: The slave owner relationship. In the air all around them is a given of inequality due to skin color. But then you’ve got Elizabeth giving Mary instruction. Elizabeth becomes not just a confidante friend but also a caretaker and mother. So these women are negotiated a whole set of relationships both spoken and unspoken.

Thompson: Elizabeth Keckly was not the maid of Mary Todd Lincoln. She did certainly make dresses for Mary, but they come together on very equal terms in my play. And certainly Mary’s outspoken and problematic and temperamental and she’s set in her ways and violently jealous and all of those things, but Elizabeth Keckly is not subservient. She’s not pliant. She’s not a wallflower, and she’s extraordinarily expressive about the way she feels, about the way she’s treated and about what she wants out of her life.

Do you think Elizabeth Keckly was as assertive in real life as she is in the play?

Luqmaan-Harris: She would have to be. Form what I’ve read about their relationship that her assertiveness was possibly why they worked so well together. I think Mary Todd Lincoln was a person who needed boundaries. Her mom died when she was very little. And so I think she would respond very well to – and not necessarily as in she acquiesces to everything that Lizzy says, but – I think they have a combative relationship to a certain degree and I also think they have a collaborative relationship in the way you do with your dear, dear friend.

On the page, the play looks more like poetry than prose. How does that inform you as an actor?

Luqmaan-Harris: The punctuation is helpful in that it gives you phrasing, so there’s not so much guesswork in terms of deciphering meaning. But one of the first things he told us was you can have flexibility within that. There are rhythmic choices that might suit you as an actor that goes against the punctuation given.  There are a lot of short phrase period short phrase period short phrase period and sometimes if you were to speak like that it would break up the rhythm. So you do have to find the flow. It’s written almost like a score. I used to be a musician so I’m actually drawn to the writing. I find it quite lyrical. It’s similar to how Shakespeare writes in a way. You get clues in the writing and when there are those mono-syllables it can tell you the intention and what you need to bring to the scene. And then you have these flowing, beautiful lines you know that you are serving a different purpose. So it’s a very good guide.

I noticed that there are no dialects written into the piece. Are you performing with dialects?

Luqmaan-Harris: I am doing a dialect. Tazewell wanted us to do a bit but he doesn’t want the dialogue to overshadow the words. Reading the script over and over and over again and the rhythm that is given to you on the page would just pop into my head and a dialect came with it. It’s very lightly peppered with a Southern flair because Elizabeth Keckly, she was born in Virginia but then she moved quite a bit and she was in St. Louis for a while and then she lived in Maryland for a bit and then DC. I wanted to capture a little bit of her worldliness and her refinement in her dialect.

Jacobson: I’ve taken on a bit of dialect without going too far. Taz wanted a hint and I tried to honor that. I tried to honor the accuracy of that Kentucky sound.

What’s it like playing a historical character about whom people already have certain ideas?

Jacobson: I’ve done as much research as I can, but I’m not portraying a historical Mary Todd Lincoln, I’m portraying Taz’s. So my first source of information is the play. I know Taz has done his research, so I trust that. And I’m aware that everyone’s going to be thinking about Sally Field, but there’s nothing I can do about what people expect. I’m trying to be as true as I can to Taz’s vision, to the Mary that I’ve been reading about, and to the Mary that lives inside of me. I can’t bring Mary Todd Lincoln to life. I can bring the woman’s characteristics and her emotional reality and her emotional life through Naomi to the stage. I’ve got a couple of things going for me, and one is that I’m really short. So I try to identify the things in me that are like me. I’m quite bratty and I’m very emotional, and I can be really high and low. And then I try to identify the things that aren’t like Mary and go what does Mary have that I don’t have and then I need to look in myself for those qualities. I can always find it because we’re all human. But if Mary has more of that than I do, I try to get a hook into it and then pull it up out of me and make it live a little larger.

There’s a moment in the play in which Mary Todd uses her racial privilege to intimidate Ivy, Keckly’s assistant. How do you approach such a moment and related issues of race and prejudice in rehearsal?

Luqmaan-Harris: There hasn’t been any sort of dialogue about it. These people just are who they are and there are moments where Mary Todd Lincoln does go back into her past where she grew up having slaves and she snaps into speaking like that to these two African-American women. But those moments are meant to be ugly. They’re meant to expose the quick shift that you can have when you are conditioned to treat someone in a certain way and then all of the sudden—I can’t imagine when the emancipation proclamation came down, I don’t think it was just the slaves who had difficulty adjusting. And for a lot of people who had been slave owners, just because you had slaves doesn’t mean you were brutal to them necessarily. But it does mean that you were conditioned to have slaves around you and you spoke to them in a certain way, you dealt with them in a certain way. I find that our ensemble is a true quartet and so we are all pretty fearless. So there was no discussion really needed about—there were no kid gloves put on. We didn’t have to have a sit down and go, “Okay, we’re entering into this murky territory, everybody remember we’re just acting.” I think we are all extremely professional and we also have a wonderful rapport so it never needed to be discussed, which I actually prefer.

Jacobson: In the moment on the stage it’s about another woman. There’s a protection of Abraham, and she was irrationally jealous of other women. So partly it’s racial, but partly it’s women. Other women flirted with her husband and he flirted back. But it’s hard. There’s a moment I have to do on stage that every fiber of my being bulks at. But all I can do is take the energy that it is in front of me obstructing me and put it behind me and let it propel me forward. I take the obstacle and I make it the motivation. So it’s the female stuff, saying don’t you dare undermine me with my husband, don’t you dare flirt with my husband, and Mary takes it a step further and says, “Go find a rag or a bucket in a corner somewhere and make yourself useful.” And in that moment, if you are on the verge of having love pulled out from under you, you have to weight the rug with everything you can and use whatever you have to use, whatever is at your fingertips to make sure that rug is in place. It’s not about oh I hate you and so I’m going to make sure you stay down, it’s you are trying to usurp my position. There’s imminent threat here. She’s been abandoned before, so this threat is hard-wired into her.

Thompson: I keep the room very spirited, very open. People can say what they like. I keep a very disciplined room as well. We start on time and we have fun. I’ve directed quite a few plays where race has played a very key role. I’m working with actors, I’m working with artists, so we tend to be a much more liberal group. I’ve never hired an actor who I believed had an ax to grind with people of color or women. So there’s never been a problem. I can’t say I approach it like every other play because that’s not true. This play is about social and political issues. But it’s never been uncomfortable. Of course it always opens a great deal of discussion. And sometimes we need to relieve whatever tension comes into the room because these are very hot button issues, very emotional and very controversial. And argumentative issues. But we always know that we’re there for the greater good. I like to do plays that are about something. I like plays that really not only touch the heart but cause people to ask questions and to question what kind of world we’re living in and have us all take a deeper look at ourselves and how we live our lives and what our neighbors might be going through.

What’s next for this play?

Thompson: During the entire rehearsal period I have been coming in with rewrites, with scene changes, with edits, one scene that was supposed to start in one place I’ve moved to another, I’ve written out an entire scene. Because I love to direct and I have a very strong point of view about my play, it would have been very difficult for the first time around to let somebody else do it. If it has a life, and I sure hope it does, I don’t think I’ll have a problem with letting other people direct it. But because the play has three women, I’d certainly like to find a wonderful woman director.

Throughout my whole life women have played a very, very key role. I was raised by nuns, and then my grandmother took me while I was in high school, and while I was in high school I was influenced by a wonderful teacher who was also a poet. Women have always played a very key role in my life so it’s really my way of promoting roles for women, but it’s also my way of honoring and acknowledging strong women in my life. I love both these characters.

Where are the black women directors?

Luqmaan-Harris: I’ve worked with a couple and they’ve both been wonderful, but it’s more on the indie-theater scene. They are around and they are doing amazing work. But I think every step towards progress—they’re steps they’re not leaps. So I’m hoping with this surge of new black playwrights and surge of a more “colorblindly casted” world, I think inherently we will see a surge in the black female directors. It’s my hope anyway. It’s not for lack of trying. For black females there’s a bit of history of invisibility. There’s a long road ahead of us.

So I’m not imagining it–there is a surge of new black playwrights?

Luqmaan-Harris: In New York I have for sure. In New York there’s a new festival called the New Black Fest, which is all about black playwrights and black directors. It is becoming quite a phenomenon. The Classical Theater of Harlem is having a major surge and they have a wonderful reading series on Monday nights where actors can show up and playwrights have new plays that they’re working on so you go up and you do cold readings of plays for an audience. There are people who have voices and those voices are starting to be heard. And they are loud and beautiful and poetic.

Cross posted at Ms.

What do you get when you combine passionate individuals determined to survive with multi-generational family drama and two key moments in African American history? A pretty great new play, that’s what.

Opening November 23 at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, Pullman Porter Blues, by Cheryl L. West (Jar the Floor, Before it Hits Home), takes place aboard a Pullman train headed from Chicago to New Orleans on June 22, 1937, the night Joe Louis won the world heavyweight boxing championship. Three generations of Sykes men are on the train working as porters: The eldest, Monroe, proud of the life he built for his family by working in the first paid job available to freed slaves; Sylvester, a union organizer determined to better conditions for porters and become a conductor himself; and Cephas, a well-educated young man oblivious to the hardships his father and grandfather faced and naïve as to the obstacles in his path. The men are joined on this fateful night by a blast from their past: Juba, once a maid on the trains, now a blues-singing superstar.

Starting in the 1860s, jobs created by the Pullman Train Company contributed significantly to the rise of an African American middle class. Though the history of the Pullman porters is well documented, not much attention has been paid to Pullman maids. According to Christine Sumption, the researcher/dramaturg for the show:

At the time the Pullman company was getting started and offering this incredible service to wealthy, white passengers–this meticulous service all down the train line given to them by African American men–they also recognized that it was perhaps inappropriate to have black men putting white women to bed. So they brought in African American women to serve as maids on the train, and these women literally did everything for these white women. They would do their manicures, they would take care of them when they were sick, help them get showered, take care of the children, take care of the elderly. They basically did much of what the porters did, and on a much more personal level.

Though initially welcomed as full union members, the maids were eventually relegated to the women’s auxiliaries. But without their work, the first union led by African Americans–The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters–might never have been. Due to tough economic times and changing fashions–so that women passengers needed less help dressing–by 1937 the company no longer employed maids.

Juba’s experience as a maid on a Pullman train did not end well: After being raped by a white conductor while her lover, Sylvester, stood by unable to help, she fled the trains and made a new life for herself. Now a successful entertainer, she is rich enough to rent her own sleeping car for a trip with her band. Unbeknownst to her, Sylvester and his father Monroe, who nursed Juba back to health after her attack, are on the train, bringing about a kind of reckoning for them all.

Based on such women as Bessie Smith (who famously owned her own sleeping car), Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, Ida Cox, Victoria Spivey and Lucille Bogan, Sumption notes that Juba is one of

these queens of the blues who, in defiance of the time and expectations of who they were supposed to be, were out there–aggressive, independent, assertive–making their own way and claiming their sexuality and their right to be not just singers but managers of bands and managers of their own lives, with power and actual wealth.

In fact Juba’s past is more of an issue for Sylvester than it is for her. His inability to protect her in her moment of need has driven him to fight to improve working conditions, pay and promotional opportunities for porters in the union. (His long battle will end in success two months after the date that the play concludes, when the Pullman Company finally recognized the union and signed a collective bargaining agreement.)

Asked about the danger of the character of Juba serving more as a dramaturgical tool for Sylvester’s redemption than as a character in her own right, director Lisa Peterson tells the Ms. Blog,

Now it’s true that Juba had this terrible thing happen to her in the past in which she felt powerless, but in response to having had that happen she’s developed this really aggressive mask, [a] way of moving through the world. So [she's] fighting…Sylvester’s problem, his inability to help Juba, that’s his problem. That’s a guilt that he carries.

Playwright Cheryl L West concurs:

When a man is not able to protect his woman, a common occurrence for black men during slavery and post slavery, it is that type of failure that would indeed haunt him every time he closed his eyes  for the rest of his life. He’s trying to get that redemption by telling her, ‘That’s why I’m fighting so hard,’ and she, of course, has no need to hear that… He wants to explain and he wants her to acknowledge what he’s been doing differently. That’s his need. It’s not her need.

E. Faye Butler, who plays Juba and with whom the Ms. Blog also spoke last September when she appeared in the Arena Stage’s Trouble in Mind, talks about playing a character who has been but is no longer a victim:

She’s always in control. She will never be out of control another day in her life. She lives in the moment. He’s still living in the past. She’s living in the present.

Though in many ways Juba’s experience of sexual violence represents that of so many women throughout history, regardless of color, Butler finds nuances that are specific to the experiences of African American women:

I think a lot of African American women are left hanging in the balance trying to figure out what happened. And we get so tired of figuring out what happened we just say, ‘Forget it,’ and we push it to the side. A lot of men leave, and they leave with their tails between their legs because they don’t think they’re good enough, they don’t have enough money, they don’t have enough education. And African American women have always had to forge ahead. We can’t wait. We have children and we have responsibilities. We have to take care of ourselves.

West hopes her intimate exploration of individual lives, family history and the history of the African American people will lead the audience to ask difficult but important questions about the effects of history on our present:

Where are we now? How empowered are we now? Where are our tools for survival? How do we express and tell the next generation our history so that they can take from that a sense of pride, a sense of purpose and even a sense of direction, as opposed to ignoring the history because we think it’s only of victimhood? …We don’t want to think about the times we had to do menial labor when we’re now lawyers and doctors and priests and everything, the whole gamut. But it is off the backs of people who didn’t have the same privileges that we became what we are today. A lot of pride, a lot of dignity, a lot of lessons can be learned from those porters, because no matter what, they consistently said, ‘I do a job and I do it well.’

If you are near D.C., get tickets now to invest in this world and listen to some fantastic blues.

Pullman Porter Blues runs from November 23- January 6. Visit Arena Stage’s website to hear the music and meet the team behind the show. Click here to read more of the interviews with Cheryl L. West, Lisa Peterson, E. Faye Butler and Christine Sumption.

For further reading, check out Melinda Chatauvert’s Marching Together: Women of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday.

Photo of E. Faye Butler as Juba from by Kevin Rosinbum.

A conversation about the new play Pullman Porter Blues with playwright Cheryl L. West, director Lisa Peterson, actor E. Faye Butler, and dramaturg Christine Sumption. Read the full article at Ms.

The Ms. Magazine Blog: What would you say Pullman Porter Blues is about?

West: The entire play really is about how do you survive: How do you survive in your family, how do you survive against economic oppression, how do you survive alone? How do you survive when there’s so little to go around? And how do you survive your own choices in life? I think that this story really resonates today because I think we are also in a time in our country when so many people are fighting to survive, and that doesn’t always bring out the pretty in us.

Peterson: I think the story is about a generation of men working on the train and how they try to pass down from one generation to the next the best part of themselves, to make the future better than the past. It’s a play about the generations joining forces to make a better future.

I understand the play was inspired somewhat by memories of West’s grandfather?

West: I don’t remember his specific stories, but I do remember how much it changed him and that when he would tell them he would so romanticize that time in his life, the ability to travel, the ability to see the country, to have a good job for a black at that time. I remember more his expression than anything else.

Most people have a train story, some nostalgia about the train, and so it just seems to resonate with all kinds of people. A lot of times trains lull you into reflection and to think deeply about things, to see the world passing you by literally out the window makes you reflect on your world.

Sumption: [Cheryl told me] she remembers taking the train down to go back and visit family in Mississippi. And she remembered that her grandmother, who was a bit of a flirt, every time a porter walked by she would just lift her skirt up just a little bit. And Cheryl was always trying to figure out what was the attraction to these men? She remembers they were so clean, they were so pressed, and she was just intrigued by what made these men smile all the time. She had no idea about the kind of professional armor they had to wear. And as we got talking we realized a lot of different people, their uncles, their grandfathers were porters.

What are the different ideas represented by these men of one family and three generations?

West: Monroe is such a character of a man who really believes in the family. He really believes in protecting them. The strain throughout his story is that he wants to protect the generations and protect their history. He wants them to know it because he believes that history is what’s going to be their veil of protection so that they can survive the next generation. Because if you don’t know where you came from it’s hard to know where you’re going and how you arrived where you are at the present.

That second generation, that Sylvester character, is always so angry. You learn as the play goes on that this is a man looking for redemption. I mean he has some things to be angry about, he has some things to feel like a failure about. And the way he’s learned to cope in his life, the way that he’s learned to survive is this sort of combustible kind of anger.

His son, Cephas, has the benefit of a few years past slavery, his son has education, some sense of his own manhood, because he has been able to go to a school, he has had privileges. And he’s been so sheltered and protected in a way that he doesn’t know that it’s a danger out there just because of the color of his skin. He has both of them there sheltering and protecting so a lot of the ugliness of the world has been kept from him. In a way the grandfather put him on this train to teach him in a way that just telling him would not.

Most people don’t know the details of the history behind the Pullman porters. Tell us more about them.

Sumption: [Cheryl] knew she was going to writing something about the porters, and did an extensive examination of the history trying to decide where we wanted to place the play historically. She chose 1937 specifically because that was the year that the Pullman company recognized the union and signed a collective bargaining agreement with them. It was also the year that Joe Louis won the heavyweight championship and so we chose to set it on that night. But the Brotherhood was first formed in about 1925 and Pullman was fiercely anti-union. Particularly they did not want African American men unionizing. They hired them specifically right out of slavery; the company was getting started and all the slaves had just been emancipated and were looking for jobs. And this was a way of not only – in the benevolent view, providing employment for this group of black workers – but also advertising to white people that they would get the service that was the equivalent to having slaves. And so they are definitely playing both sides of the coin here.

The union struggled for many years; they had to remain underground. Asa Philip Randolph was the head of the union and he fought all kinds of dirty tricks. It took them ten years to get the charter from the American Federation of Labor and up until that time, all the unions had been white. By 1928 or 29 the union had 10,000 members. I mean it was huge. Then the stock market crashed, the economy went into a tailspin, and the union also really suffered during that time. But they were fiercely determined organizers.

West: You know there were maids on this train. Then after a certain amount of years, there were no maids any more. I think in 1925 they really starting organizing the union, it took them 12 years to get the Pullman Company to sign a collective bargaining agreement. So from where this play takes place in a few months they’re gonna finally get recognized as a union. It took them twelve long years.

Christine: And although the union, which is famous for being the first African American labor union, was initially called The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, in 1929 when they developed a new constitution they dropped the “and maids” from the title. So even in the world of their union they were excluded.

West: The maids did most of the tending to the elderly and the white women: Their hair, their nails, if they needed help with bathing, they did all that kind of work for the white women because you know the porters weren’t supposed to deal with white women. They didn’t do as well as the porters, they didn’t make as much money. And a lot of time they were on there taking care of the white women’s babies while their babies were at home. So they did have to sacrifice to be on there. But it was a job. You could earn some tip money. And you could see some of the country as well. But they worked really hard and were not treated well at all.

Christine: One of the challenging things was the maids were frequently the only women on the train. There would be a maid and there would be a lot of porters and conductors and brakemen and so on. Eventually – particularly as women’s fashions changed and women on the train no longer needed help lacing up their corsets – the maids began to become smaller and smaller in number on the trains. Then they were encouraged within the union to move from being actual union activists with membership to the women’s auxiliaries. But they were an important part of the history and have been largely relegated to the margins.

You the say the maids were often the only women on the trains. Were some of them raped, as Juba was?

Sumption: Certainly there was sexual harassment. There are some accounts of maids on the train being harassed particularly by conductors. It’s not heavily documented but we did do a certain amount of thinking about how common harassment and rape are among women in our time and how little that has been spoken of and used that as an imaginative leaping off point.

What are some of the men’s issues in the play?

West: Sylvester has a sense of feeling emasculated, and emasculation leads to a lot of problems. Not being able to provide in a certain way, not being able to protect – those are assumed roles for men. And then when that is cut off or the man is inept or the man is incapable of or prevented from providing, then what do you do with that? And you see sometimes outbursts of violence, turning it on the woman as if it’s her fault that I feel less than a man, you know, as opposed to what is the real source here. But the real source is, as Juba says, is you can’t say that to a white man.

Christine: I think there is an effort on Cheryl’s part to reclaim an image of black manhood that is so denigrated in a lot of culture, that view of black men that they’re gangsters, they don’t take care of their children, they’re criminals. So she’s really looking at, “What about the man who is responsible for his children? The one who does care about what happens to the next generation, who is really struggling to meet his responsibility?”

What’s it like collaborating interracially on a play about African American experience?

Peterson: As a director, I always feel like I’m going into a culture and a world I have to learn about, even if it’s ethnically similar to me it’s always about investigating myself, so it doesn’t feel that different to me. It’s an exploratory and educational process for me in some ways, but the job feels the same to me, which is to tell the story in an exciting way, looking for clarity and contrast and finding a way to fluidly give it physical life. That’s my job no matter what. … The world of the Pullman porters is a very important part of American history but not something that people know a lot about and so I think for all of us, it’s still kind of a world that we need to investigate.

Butler: There are times it’s extremely challenging. I will not lie. I know a lot of people like to say,”Oh it’s no different working with a white director.” It is different. There are times that you have to talk them off the ledge. I think Lisa understands human emotion a great deal, and I think there were times that she would say certain things to me and I would be like, “Mmm, I understand from a woman’s standpoint from you, but African American women don’t respond that way about that.” I had to show her a lot. I had to say, “I don’t think she would be as angry as you think she would be.” I said, “Juba can’t spend the rest of her life being angry with him as much as she is disappointed in him.” Because to be angry like that all the time, that means I consider myself a victim. She will play a man. African American women will play a man to the end of their lives, more than we would go, “Oh I just really miss you.” Huh-uh. I might be thinking that, but I’m not going to say it.

Lisa asked a lot of questions of Cheryl, and I think she’s very good at allowing us to come to the process and we are learning from her and her putting us in good places on stage but her also learning historically some of the things that African Americans go through that she couldn’t get to. She couldn’t get to it because it’s an experience. You can’t learn it, you live it. So there’s some things she can’t help me with. She can ask me about it and I try to talk her through it so she understands it so that when she’s directing me she keeps me on the straight and narrow of that and we don’t get off track. But it is very very different dealing with a white director on a black piece. You do have to be more sensitive to them, you do have to explain a little bit more what’s going on. I’ve worked with lots of white directors on a black piece and as long as they’re open the process is good.

Who is Juba?

Butler: Juba is a woman that lives in the moment. She’s learned to live in the moment because of things that have happened to her in her life. The few women who were extremely prominent during that period had a lot of power and men worked for them. So she’s strong, she’s ballsy, she’s glamorous, and she’s got a lot of tenderness in her but she’s got to cover it up because if not she’ll continue to get stepped on. She has to cover it up because if not she’ll get hurt again and again and again. But she’s really full of life. She’s totally in the moment. She has to live in the moment.

Her past made her who she is, though. Juba is not really her name. She used to work as a maid on the train, and this is the first time she’s been back on that train and she’s coming back as a big star. It’s not a ride she wants to take, it’s a ride she has to take. And so she protects herself on this ride. And it’s quite a ride for her.

Sumption: She was one of the first characters that Cheryl envisioned. She knew she wanted to write about the porters, she knew it would be a generational play because she wanted to depict how different men in different points in time look at race relations and family and responsibility and so on. And she always knew she wanted to have a blues singer on that train, partly influenced of course by the fact that Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were these towering figures of the blues. Bessie Smith famously had her own railroad car so that she was really traveling in style. So Cheryl wanted to give some sense of what that was like.

Butler: She gets on the train only focused on the fact that I’ve got to get to New Orleans on this particular train and that I do not want to be on. She’s got her band with her, she’s a major star, it’s the same night as the heavyweight fight with Joe Louis. She thinking maybe I’ll just get on this train, stay a little under the radar and people will leave me alone. It just so happens that her porter happens to be the man that helped save her life, which takes her back to a place that she never expected to go.

Sumption: Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies was one of the things that really influenced my thinking about Juba as a figure. She talks about how there’s this prevailing image of the black woman of the period being this tragic figure and she does this breakdown of the lyrics and talks about how they are defiant bordering on violent and just claiming their independence and strength in the world.

Butler: Juba is going for it. She’s going to rise above it no matter what. She’d love to take you along for the ride and she’s ready to go. But if not, that’s okay.

Talk about her relationship with Sylvester.

Sumption: One of the great conflicts of the play is 26-years later he is still absolutely wrapped up in what he didn’t do and how he didn’t help her and she’s long since gone. She hasn’t forgotten it, but his inability to move on from that is kind of why she rejects him. She needs to be seen as her own human being who found ways to survive and thrive despite what men did. And in a way to her at this point the men are irrelevant. They’re there, but she knows that’s it’s on her to live.

Butler: He always talks about everything but what he should be talking to her about. He’s trying to talk about the union, and she’s like excuse me? You want to talk about the Pullman Porter union? Get out of my face. Why do you keep talking to me about something I don’t care about? If you want to talk to me and you want me to respond to you in a positive way, you got to start out better. She doesn’t care about that. So he kind of shoots himself in the foot because he never just says “I’m sorry.” He never talks about the elephant in the middle of the room.

African American women don’t have time to sit around and wait on men to call us crying in your spoiled milk about what you woulda coulda shoulda done. I was the one that suffered and now you want me to feel sorry for you? Get away from me. You really want me to feel sorry for you when it happened to me? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s the way it’s going to work. So that’s why every time they meet she just kind of stomps off or she gets angry, and it’s that thing that a lot of black men will say to us: “Why are you angry all the time?” Really? Why am I angry all the time? Really? If I have to tell you, it isn’t worth talking about.

What’s the relationship between trains and the blues?

Sumption: I think the primary thing that we were looking at was the notion that when the Emancipation Proclamation happened was also the time when the railroads were booming. You’ve got people traveling north as part of the Great Migration, and people who were moving to Chicago were bringing the blues with them and finding ways to transform the art form. So it was a boom time that the music was carried by the trains. And it spread African American culture in this really profound way. And so many of the songs of the period are about trains. Frequently the blues is not so much about what is said but how it’s said: You’ve got singers’ voices and instruments that replicate either the moan of the train whistle or the sound of the train running down the tracks and that sense of restlessness and seeking home.

And really people reinventing their lives. Juba does it literally in the sense of making a new human being. That maid is dead and gone. She’s remade herself as this fabulous singer. People moving north as part of the Great Migration were transforming their lives and really figuring out anew what they could do.

Is it just me, or is there some significance to the fact that the trip in the play is the reverse of the Great Migration?

Sumption: One of the things that the Porters are famous for is distributing the African American newspapers, particularly the Chicago Defender, moving those newspapers south and really carrying word of the opportunities that were available up North to people in the South. But also Cheryl really wanted to dig into that notion of what happens when you go back, either literally going back to where you come from or those of us now going back in history and recognizing the contributions of those who came before us, the people who made it possible for us to do what we are able to do now and recognizing that sacrifice, facing up to the pain that our ancestors experienced and celebrating what they accomplished.

Photos (from top) of Cheryl West by Nate Watters, and Lisa Peterson courtesy Arena Stage.

Cross-posted at Ms.

When The Help premiered earlier this summer, African American feminists bemoaned the lack of civil rights narratives told by the black women who actually lived through the era. Though it probably won’t be a Hollywood blockbuster, a bulwark American theater is about to open a civil rights play written by an African American woman. In the process, a long lost gem of the American theater might be on the verge of rediscovery.

Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.–founded in 1950 by theater matriarch Zelda Fichandler and run now by Molly Smith–is producing Trouble in Mind, authored by little-known African American playwright Alice Childress. Childress, of the same generation as Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun) and as well-known in her time, has been almost forgotten today. Both women were mentored by Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, both lived and worked in New York, both were largely self-educated and they were good friends and colleagues. But apparently there’s only room in the canon for one black woman, so while the wonderful Hansberry is featured in almost every major anthology of American drama, hardly anyone even recognizes Childress’ name. Most of her plays are out of print.

Alice Childress grew up with her mother and grandmother in Harlem in the 1920s, dropping out of high school after they both died. She educated herself with visits to the public library, learning about the structures of plays, books, and short stories by consuming Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Sean O’Casey and books on African American history. As a single parent, she worked to support herself and her daughter as a salesperson, assistant machinist, insurance agent and domestic worker. Her plays give voice to the real working-class African American women she met in those jobs.

In the 1940s, Childress co-founded the American Negro Theatre, for which she acted and where she also found her voice as a writer, claiming that “racism, a double blacklisting system, and a feeling of being somewhat alone in my ideas caused me to know I could more freely express myself as a writer.” She became the first African American woman to have a play professionally produced with Gold Through the Trees, a musical revue of slavery and resistance throughout the African diaspora. Her plays incorporate the liturgy of the black church, traditional music, African mythology, folklore and fantasy, connecting the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement both chronologically and aesthetically. Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, Wine in the Wilderness and her 15 other plays are socio-political, romantic, biographical, historical and feminist.

Of the necessity of a black theater (as defined by Du Bois to be theater by black people, about black people, near black people and for black people), she once said,

We have cajoled, pleaded, tommed, protested, achieved, rioted, defied, unified … you name it! But white supremacists have dug their heels into the ground and will settle for nothing less than outright confrontation in the streets of America.

In an effort to counter the prevailing depiction of African American women on stage as maids and mammies, Childress created strong woman protagonists with minds of their own. She continued writing into the late 1960s.

Trouble in Mind, written in 1955, tells the story of a newly integrated theater company rehearsing a play for Broadway about race. Ironically, Trouble in Mind itself was optioned for Broadway but never produced there because Childress refused to give it a happy ending. In the play, a group of actors (led by Wiletta, an African American woman) and Al Manners, their white director, stumble their way around real race issues in an effort to mount a socially palliative play that the white artists believe will improve race relations. But real life has a habit of getting in the way of fictions like these, and eventually tempers flare over the black dialect, the unflattering portrayal of black mothers and the rehearsal techniques of the director–a Method man who pushes Wiletta to express emotions she doesn’t really feel.

According to the play’s director, Irene Lewis, who was until recently the artistic director of Baltimore Centerstage,

For years, the play was recommended to me as a show that I should produce. I had read the play several times over the years and found it to be “old-fashioned/old hat,” especially concerning the depiction of the character of the white director. Finally, I decided to ask the opinion of an African American actress whose judgment I have always valued. She read the play and told me that she liked it. When I asked if she found the role of the white director dated and unbelievable, she said, ‘No.’ So I came around to the opinion that this was another case of–what should I call it–whites (me) being ‘out of touch’ with the experiences of African Americans. I decided to produce and direct the play at Centerstage in Baltimore. It subsequently transferred to Yale Repertory Theater. I am delighted that Molly is bringing this groundbreaking piece to Arena Stage.

The metatheatricality of the play provides plenty of room for commentary on race relations in the 1950s. But it also seems to be finding relevance, at long last, in the present. Trouble in Mind was presented in simultaneous readings around the country in June by Project1Voice, a national grassroots movement designed to support and cultivate artistic excellence, creativity and innovation among African American theater organizations. Curious as to how the sudden interest in Childress’ work fits into our current national dialogue on race, the Ms. Blog spoke not only with Lewis but with Marty Lodge, who plays the white director, and with E. Faye Butler, who plays Wiletta.

Ms. Blog: In what ways are the issues presented in the play a product of the past, and in what ways do they speak to us directly in the now?

BUTLER: It’s not a dated piece. The thing most people think who’ve heard it or seen is “Oh, what an interesting subject–to take something that is so present day and put it in the ’50s.” I say it’s not a piece that was written in present day. A lot of people, especially actors or people in the arts, always find it amazing that it’s written in ’55. They always think it’s a new piece.

LODGE: Things haven’t really changed that much. Wiletta is complaining that she plays all these mammy roles, and here in this day and age Viola Davis is still playing maids. So what has changed? There really aren’t that many great roles for middle-aged African American women. There are still plenty of Al Mannerses around. They think they’re open-minded and they’re not.

BUTLER: It’s that same old thing even when you go into casting and people will say to you, “Wow you really read that well.” You’re like, Yeah, I’m trained. But a lot of people think … you know that old adage–you’re not black enough, or you’re not white enough. People go, “Can you be more, you know, ‘urban?’” That’s the new thing, they say “urban.” I say I’m as urban as I can be: I’m black.

I always tell the story about my agent calling me saying there’s this famous director that’s interested in you for a play in London. So I get the side, and the side says, “Character sits on porch with kerchief on her head. She moans, groans and sings a spiritual.” I said, “You want me to come to an audition in New York to moan and groan and sing a spiritual? Have you lost your mind? Thank you, no.” No matter how far you think you’ve come, there’s always somebody that wants to take you right back. Why are we still telling that story? There are other stories to be told besides maids and servants. I think everybody needs to see this piece because it reminds us where we lie.

I was interested in the description of how Lewis came to direct the play and her original concerns about the character of Al Manners. Marty, do you feel like the character is stereotypical or unbelievable?

LODGE: He’s not like some stereotypical white guy in an all-black play. He’s nasty, but he’s nasty to everybody. He’s just kind of rude and self-centered. He fancies himself a liberal, open-minded guy, understanding and compassionate. He really believes he’s doing a cutting-edge play addressing things that hadn’t been addressed yet. He thinks he’s helping the cause. It’s not until the very end, when he blurts something out, that you find out, well, maybe all those liberals aren’t as liberal as you think they are.

LEWIS: [Childress is] such a good playwright. She doesn’t shove anything down your throat. She just lays it out there in a very graceful but strong way. I think it’s illuminating as well as extraordinarily entertaining. I mean, this is funny.

What’s it like working with such strong women leaders on this play?

LODGE: I never thought about it, but it’s true: It’s a theater run by a woman, and I’m playing opposite a really strong lead woman. And I kind of love it. [Lewis] is very brave and she is not afraid to say what she thinks.

Irene, how has being a woman affected your career as a director?

LEWIS: When I came up there were three women in the country who ran theaters. And they were spread out all over the map. What it took to get on the mainstage was very similar to this play. It was very similar in the way they spoke to you: “Don’t worry your pretty head about that.” It took me two to three years to have the nerve to say, “Please don’t say that.” It took me a long time to develop confidence. [As an artistic director], I like to mainstream a woman director, because you put the stamp of approval by hiring somebody and then another theater will hire her.

Do you think this play will lead to an Alice Childress renaissance?

LEWIS: No, I don’t. I mean, why hasn’t it already happened? Most theaters haven’t done it and I don’t think it’s necessarily because they haven’t heard of it. Black directors always bring it up. It was a natural for me, but people are gonna be what they are. All I can do is do my work and then see.

Well, a girl can dream.

Trouble in Mind runs September 9 through October 23 at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Two special events allow for dialogue around the issues in the play: “Making Trouble: Women and Minorities in the Arts,” on Sat., Sept. 24 from 2–3 pm, will be a discussion about gender and minorities in the arts from Trouble in Mind to present day; “Black Face in the Media,” on Wed., Oct. 12 from 6–7 p.m. will be a conversation about the influence of media in the fight for racial equality in the United States from the late-1940s onward.

TOP: E. Faye Butler as Wiletta Mayer in the 2007 production of Trouble in Mind at Baltimore’s Centerstage. Photo by Richard Anderson.