Race on Stage and in the Rehearsal Room: Tazewell Thompson’s Mary T. and Lizzy K.

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.

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