(L to R) Kalani Queypo (John Ridge), Jake Waid (John Ross/Jim Ross), Kyla García (Sarah Polson) and Dorea Schmidt (Sarah Bird Northrup/Flora) in Sovereignty. Photos by Tony Powell.

Originally published by Ms. Magazine Blog on January 10, 2018

As a student at Tulane Law School, activist, writer and lawyer Mary Kathryn Nagle once persuaded her Critical Race Theory professor to let her write a play as her final paper that was based on Worcester v. Georgia, an 1832 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that tribal nations have sovereignty over what happens on their lands. President Andrew Jackson, who appeared as a character in the play, refused to enforce the decision. That final project became the seed for Sovereignty, a new play commissioned by Arena Stage which begins previews on January 12 in Washington, D.C.

In the intervening years, Nagle, a member of the Cherokee Nation, became a lawyer for Pipestem Law—where she works for the restoration of tribal sovereignty, Indian civil and constitutional rights, and the safety of Native women—and an accomplished playwright. (This season, Nagle will have …

Read more on the Ms. Magazine Blog

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Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame in Jacqueline E. Lawton’s Intelligence at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, February 24-April 9, 2017. Photo by Tony Powell.

Originally published by HowlRound on February 24, 2017.

Exactly eight days after Donald Trump was elected president, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth”—defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”—as 2016’s international word of the year, citing a 2000 percent increase in usage compared with 2015.

However, those of us who followed the second Bush administration closely became familiar with what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness” much earlier. The sixteen words George W. Bush used in the 2003 State of the Union address, for example, claiming that Saddam Hussein had sought “significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” could have been called a lie, but, given that Bush says he believed they were true when he spoke them, they have instead gone down in history as “contested.” As playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton explores in her new play Intelligence, the ensuing Plamegate scandal—involving the outing of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame—was full of its own deep truths not just about American politics but also about life in America at the time.

Our audiences were flocking to—hungry for—stories about politics and power in the whole diversity of how those are told—drama, musicals, all of that. These were the stories we were seeing our communities be inspired by. I think we’re all really hungry to understand who we are as Americans, in all of the delicious complexity, contradiction, beauty, and joy that that identifier can hold.

Lawton’s play is inspired by real events …

Read more on HowlRound

Originally published by Howlround on January 28, 2016

Lynn Nottage’s newest play, Sweat, a co-commission by Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) and Arena Stage, originated in OSF’s American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. Nottage’s contribution to this ten-year program of commissioning “up to thirty-seven new plays from moments of change in United States history” deals with the moment of change that we are in right now, a moment she calls the “de-industrial revolution, the bookend to a century that began with the shaping of America through the Industrial Revolution.”

(L-R) Kimberly Scott as Cynthia, Kevin Kenerly as Brucie, Tara Mallen as Jessie and Johanna Day as Tracey in Sweat at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Nottage had been struck by a 2011 New York Times article about the impact of the Great Recession on the town of Reading, Pennsylvania, and, along with director Kate Whoriskey, decided to approach this project the same way they approached Ruined, Nottage’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play about Congolese women living in a war zone: by immersing themselves in a place and getting to know the people who live there.

Speaking by phone from New York, Nottage shared her love of that process:

There is something lovely about the playwright and the director going through the same process, having the same reference. I know that the experience we had in Uganda is that we made these lists. She’d write down everything she was experiencing and I’d write down everything that I’d experienced and what we found is that a lot of time our eyes pick up and see different things, which I think complement each other and fill out the experience. So when I reached out to Kate it was with that same concept in mind: that we go and do the research together, sharing the same experience but writing it down and then comparing our lists. For me it was kind of eye opening. For so many directors, theatre is a visual medium and for so many playwrights it’s a literary medium. So she would describe textures and colors whereas I would tend to describe the nature of the encounter.

What they found in Reading was a town in which the economic contraction that began in 2008 and has nearly disappeared the middle class in the ensuing years is realized literally in the architecture. Whereas Reading used to be the site of a thriving shopping economy, now “the outlet malls are all closed and you see the shells, these hollowed out buildings that still have the Kenneth Cole logo painted on them but there’s nothing inside.”

When things became fractured, they became fractured along economic lines but also racial lines. What we experienced was that everyone is sort of pointing over the divide at everyone else and placing blame. So instead of placing the blame on those who are really responsible, the greedy corporate interests, we tend to cannibalize each other. We say “it’s your fault, person of color, for coming in and taking our jobs” rather than really examining what’s happening on a larger and broader scale, which is that the companies are making decisions to move the factories to a right-to-work state, or out of the country so that they can exploit workers in different ways.

Wary of pillaging Reading for their stories and leaving, Nottage is now working with the Labyrinth Theater Company on an installation project that aims to create a space that puts people in Reading in conversation with one another, allows them to tell each other their stories, and hopefully shows them what Nottage saw, which was that despite their differences, they actually share one fundamental narrative. Labyrinth and Oregon Shakespeare Festival will also co-produce a reading of Sweat in Reading this spring.

(L-R) Stephen Michael Spencer as Jason and Tramell Tillman as Chris in Sweat at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Asked whether she’s concerned that the upper-middle-class audiences that frequent large theatres in metropolitan areas might not be able to connect with her working-class characters, Nottage was optimistic: “There’s a fear that upper-class audience members can’t see themselves in the characters, but I think that that’s not true of everyone who goes to the theater.” She continued:

One of my frustrations with what happens on the stage a lot of the time when working class people are put up there, it’s like poverty porn. They’re laughed at, or they’re the villains, or they’re ridiculous. I think the struggles folks are going through are really real. It affects you physically and emotionally. And I think about America where you have the majority of people living in that state and we’re seeing what it’s doing to us in the level of gun violence and the level of sexual abuse and assault that happens around the country. I think it’s a result of the stress that we’re under to survive.

Despite the underlying economic and social critique and the painstaking research that went into creating the play, the people it renders are familiar, and the audience encounters these people in a very familiar place—one that has served as an apt home for classics from Eugene O’Neill and William Saroyan to John Patrick Shanley —a bar.

(L-R) Tramell Tillman as Chris and Tyrone Wilson as Evan in Sweat at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
(L-R) Jack Willis as Stan, Kimberly Scott as Cynthia and Johanna Day as Tracey in Sweat at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Nottage chose the setting in order to write the kinds of conversations people have in neutral, relaxed spaces like bars, and she based her bar on one of many that she and Whoriskey visited in Reading:

There was one that we walked into where the architecture definitely affected the design impulses: You could see it was filled with history and knick-knacks and little things that told the story and told you how much the space was kind of beloved.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t bet on the relatable characters and familiar setting keeping the play from hitting a few nerves, but that’s part of Nottage’s goal:

What I see in New York is that the shows are shrinking down. I don’t see a lot of politics on stage. And I think that when work is confrontational the confrontation is about people taking off their clothes, it’s not about ideas and ideologies being challenged. It’s interesting what people think provocation is.  I think that provocation is when you enter in the space and everything you believe in is challenged.

I think that what surprises people with this show is the alliances that they forge with characters that are then undermined. I think that that’s what people respond to—that the whole show exists in the gray area. Everyone in the play makes a compromised decision that ends up having implications that hurt someone else. There’s no character in the play that doesn’t do that, and I think that’s challenging.

Originally published by HowlRound on November 10, 2015

This piece is a follow up to an earlier preview of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Read the original piece here.

Was it Oz? Well, it took me about as long to recover from my weekend in DC as I imagine it took Dorothy to settle back in to Kansas. I was on a theatre high for weeks after a visit to see as much of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival as I could over three days—which is actually not much given that forty-eight women have new plays in this festival.

Destiny of Desire
First up was Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarías, directed by José Luis Valenzuela, at Arena Stage. When I spoke with Zacarías in September, she described her show featured a troupe of actors doing a telenovela. The women in the acting company, she said, are not pleased with where their characters are going, so it becomes about “What happens when women take destiny in their own hands and start changing the script? What happens when we go off the path that is expected of us and test new things?”

Esperanza America as Pilar Castillo, Elia Saldaña as Victoria del Rio, and Fidel Gomez as Doctor Diego in Destiny of Desire. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Given this description I was therefore surprised that, though the show contained many Brechtian elements, such as visible lighting apparatus and the interruption of the action by actors delivering sometimes humorous, sometimes sobering factoids about love, marriage, family, and Latina/o life into microphones, the actors in the telenovela never actually acknowledged that they were actors or that they were “changing the script.” The reality was something much more subtle, wherein all of the typical devices of a telenovela were employed (swapped babies, mysterious deaths, fabulous costumes) without question, yet merely by focusing the narrative on the two young women— who according to the usual structure, have little authority over their own lives— Zacarías allows us to watch them, in the most Brechtian sense, nevertheless persist in making their own choices about how to get what they want. The overall effect was hilarious, moving, and a truly insightful look at Latina/o life in relation to pop culture.

Saturday I treated myself to a matinee of Animal by Claire Lizzimore, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, at Studio Theatre. Animal was in one of the theatre’s smaller spaces, while Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica played the main stage. (Because Chimerica was not a world premiere, it could not technically be part of the festival.)

Animal, on the other hand, is the kind of new play that, like an adolescent human, is still actively forming its neural pathways. The theatre provided copies of the script to attendees at their afternoon panel discussion, “Playwright as Hybrid Artist,” featuring Lizzimore and other Festival playwrights who also act, direct, or design. Studio Literary Manager, Adrien-Alice Hansel, made sure to let us know that the script has changed just since that recent printing.

Joel David Santner and Kate Eastwood Norris (foreground), and Cody Nickell (background) in Animal at Studio Theatre. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

For a play so tender its formation, Animal packs a powerful punch. The artful blend between what is real and what is not subtly invites the audience into the worldview of the protagonist, Rachel—a woman enduring a mental illness, the diagnosis of which we only learn at the end. Kate Eastwood Norris’ defiant yet empathetic portrayal drives the show and the audience’s emotional response, and though she doesn’t miss a beat, our hearts do.

This show is written to be done with a small cast in a small space with a minimal set, so the next time anyone tries to tell you that they just can’t find plays by women that they can afford to do, or that have central protagonists that both men and women can connect to, tell them about Animal.

Queens Girl in the World
Saturday night I saw Queens Girl in the World by Caleen Sinette Jennings, directed by Eleanor Holdridge at Theater J. Developed by Theater J’s Locally Grown: Community Supported Art initiative, this one-woman show tells the story of a young black girl (Jacqueline) whose parents transfer her from a neighborhood school in Queens to a progressive school in Greenwich Village. Set in 1962, references to historical events like the assassination of Malcolm X resonate as strongly as the decision of the heroine to stop wearing bobby socks, a moment that becomes both personal and political when uses this a period-specific metaphor for the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Jacqueline’s encounters with Jewish culture awaken her to the vast world outside her neighborhood just as the Civil Rights Movement is awakening her political consciousness and awareness of her own racial identity. All the while, Jacqueline endures everything most young women do, like crushes and BFFs. Turns out, you can learn a lot when you look at the world through a twelve-year-old girl’s eyes. This show is a tour-de-force for its lead, played by Dawn Ursula.

Dawn Ursula as Jacqueline in Queens Girl in the World. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Women Laughing Alone with Salad
Woolly Mammoth’s production of Women Laughing Alone with Salad by Sheila Callaghan, directed by Kip Fagan, is both the most financially supported production of one of Callaghan’s plays I have ever seen, and probably not coincidentally the best. In fact, the question of whether or not new plays by women can really be expected to succeed when they are given only half the resources of productions of new plays by men came up at Woolly’s post-show panel discussion on gender parity. At the panel, Callaghan and other activist theatre women spoke about the Summit, the Kilroys, the Pipeline, and The Count, and shared their successful strategies and tactics to advance gender parity in the not-for-profit theatre. During the panel, Callaghan barely managed to contain her frustration with inequality in professional theatre. In her play, she gives full voice to the frustration she feels at the way women are treated and places the blame squarely on the media for promulgating the mythology of beauty as value. The production was loud, bold, angry, funny, sexy, disturbing, disorienting, political, and personal, with a second act that is Churchill-ian in both structure and effect.

Kimberly Gilbert, Janet Ulrich Brooks, and Meghan Reardon in Women Laughing Alone with Salad. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The post-show panelists repeatedly pointed out that no hard evidence suggests that shows by women do worse than those by men when they are given the same resources for development and production. If you invest in the works of Sheila Callaghan, you will reap the rewards.

Uprising by Gabrielle Fulton, directed by Thomas W. Jones, at MetroStage was my surprise find of the weekend. As industry weekends are intended to do, I met Fulton at the “Playwright as Hybrid Artist” panel and was able to get tickets to see her show in Alexandria, VA, on my last night there.

Set in pre-Civil War America in a community of free blacks, the inciting event of this play is the arrival of Osbourne Perry Anderson, the only surviving African American at the Harper’s Ferry Raid, seeking refuge after John Brown’s failed revolution. The play with music goes on to question the nature of freedom, work, love, motherhood, and history through an epic use of music, dance, sound, dialogue, and projections. The quality of the production rivaled all that I saw at the area’s more metropolitan theatres and the intimacy of the space was well suited to a story at turns philosophical and heart-wrenchingly personal.

Anthony Manough as Ossie and Cynthia D. Barker as Sal in Uprising. Photo by Chris Banks.

Union is particularly adept at decentering the historical figure of Anderson in favor of the fictional Sal, a free black and a repository of the history of being enslaved, raped, and separated from family that is particular to women of color. While Osbourne remains a fixed figure whose fate is determined before the play begins, Sal, though influenced and affected by the forces around her, makes her own decisions, using what little freedom she has to determine her own fate, ignoring the dire warnings of everyone around her. Despite all she’s lived through and even when no one else seems to trust her, Sal trusts herself.

Trust in women is not something you find often today—in some cases we are not trusted to make our own medical decisions, to raise children, to be single, to be married, to manage budgets, and to work at the highest levels. But the people who put together the Women’s Voices Theater Festival and the collaborators that made world-premiere productions possible for so many playwrights clearly placed not only their trust, but also their resources, behind women.

The Women’s Voices Theater Festival has also set a precedent and created a template that can be used across the country. Assuming you invest in the production, there is simply no truth in the excuse that producing plays by women is a financial risk. In fact, I’m willing to bet that almost any producer in DC who participated in the festival will tell you: Trusting women pays.

Originally published by HowlRound on October 7, 2015

HowlRound readers and social media revolutionaries may remember an event that occurred in our nation’s capital in February 2014 that became quickly known as the Summit. Convened by Washington Post critic Peter Marks around the issue of gender inequity in theatre, a panel of metro-area artistic directors discussed their collectively abysmal records at producing plays by women. As the discussion proceeded, more than one panel member was called out on social media for the tepidness of his/her approach.

Lost in the ensuing shuffle was the fact that the month before word leaked to the press of what would eventually be dubbed the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, an entire fall of world premieres of new plays and musicals by women. When the Summit was held, forty-four theatres signed up to participate. The total is now forty-eight, two of which are offering multiple premieres.

Despite the rocky start of this venture, the seven artistic directors from Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Round House Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Signature Theatre, Studio Theatre, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company formulated the idea behind the festival. They quickly regrouped and hired coordinating producers Nan Barnett and JoJo Ruf to organize the festival and reframe it as a concerted, collaborative effort to do something about the problem.

Cut to about sixteen months later, and the whole country is abuzz about the Festival, its origins, its possibilities, and its realization of world premieres by fifty female playwrights. I spoke with Ruf and Barnett; Maggie Boland, the managing director of Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA; and Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth. I also talked with Caleen Sinette Jennings, who is a professor at American University, a founding member of a DC playwright collective The Welders, and author of two premieres in the festival; Jami Brandli, a Los Angeles-based writer and author of Technicolor Life, which will premiere at Rep Stage; and Karen Zacarias, a professor at Georgetown University and author ofDestiny of Desire, premiering at Arena.

Poster for Technicolor Life by Jami Brandli. Courtesy of Rep Stage and Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

Collaboration and Cross-Pollination
Unlike the discussion at the Summit and the media firestorm that followed, producers and artists alike gave positive, forward-thinking feedback, and, on the part of Boland and Shalwitz, were refreshingly self-critical. The story goes that the artistic directors of the Big Seven regularly get together for brunch to talk about the state of DC theatre. Following on the mild success of a citywide Shakespeare festival a few years ago, they began to discuss another collaboration to highlight the range and quality of DC theatre and to promote cross-pollination between artists and audiences.

“I think there was about ten seconds between the idea of a festival and the idea of focusing it on women. It just seemed like a no-brainer to put the focus where we could provide leadership by creating a model of something that could be part of the solution,” shared Shalwitz.

Boland puts the time between inception and definition at closer to twenty seconds, but both she and Shalwitz have found that the simple fact of working on the festival while also planning future seasons has forced them to place more of a priority on diversity. Boland shared:

“One incredible side effect of this citywide conversation is that every single conversation we have internally about season planning and about artistic vision involves a discussion of who are the artists and are we doing enough to represent a diverse set of voices.”

Signature is offering three shows by women this year and Boland expects to continue doing this many shows every year, consciously diversifying in other ways as well. She notes:

“We’re not trying to wear a hair shirt about our past, we’re just trying to do better. We’re trying to look at the talent pool that Signature is drawing from at every level of the organization, onstage and off, and make sure that we’re being thoughtful and specific about having different kinds of humans around our building.”

Yet, playwright Brandli is a little more skeptical, but still inspired:

“I’m hoping that the festival really does cause a ripple effect. I’m not ungrateful at all—this is the best thing to happen to me in a long time. But what I don’t want to hear is, ‘Well you had your festival, so now you can be quiet.’ I don’t want all us female playwrights to have our ‘queen for a day’ moment, but when it’s over, we’re told to go back into the corner, and to not bitch as much if there aren’t as many female playwrights in the next few seasons of American theatre. I’m tired of being polite about it. I know I sound pretty ornery, but you get to a point in your life where you’re like: fuck it.”

Jumping All Together

Sherri L. Edelen (Rita Gaw) and Todd Buonopane (Paul Hubbard) in Cake Off at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Shortly after hiring Barnett and Ruf, the Festival consciously included representatives from more than the originating seven companies on committees devoted to marketing and publicity, development, and programming. This resulted in a genuine community-wide effort to celebrate and promote the work of women writers. Sinette Jennings has been in DC since ’84 and from the moment she arrived, she was struck by the collaborative and supportive relationships between local playwrights. She still feels like the Festival is a game changer, saying:

“I feel like part of a mosaic to know that all of these stories are going on at the same time. It’s an amazing affirmation of our talent and the power of our stories. We have artistic directors here who have always gotten it—they didn’t need a festival to recognize the power and importance of women. But this has been a fabulous way to make other artistic directors aware that this wealth of material is out there, and it’s not all touchy feely kitchen sink drama. I’ve got female playwright colleagues who scare the pants off me in terms of how edgy and tough they are. So any assumptions people have about a woman is X, they need to throw that out the window.”

The offerings range from Woolly’s production of Sheila Callaghan’s overtly feminist Women Laughing Alone with Salad, which examines the ways sexually charged representations of women in the media effect both men and women, to a new musical at Signature called Cake Off that tells the story of the first man to win the Pillsbury Bake Off. Then, Zacarias’s Brechtian telenovela is about what happens to a troupe of actors doing a Mexican television series when the women, dissatisfied with the way their roles are written, take destiny in their own hands, and start changing the script.

Although Zacarias, a founding member of Latina/o Theatre Commons, is one of the few Latina playwrights represented in the whole festival, she is still struck by the camaraderie behind the event. She remarks:

“It’s usually a very solitary moment when a theatre does a new play, like you’re the only one jumping off the cliff, while everybody else is doing some golden nugget that you know the audiences will come to. Because we’re all taking the risk at the same time, it takes away the competitive nature of things and everybody just wants to do as well as they can. We’re all jumping off at the same time and we’re hoping that everyone makes a beautiful dive.”

Artwork for Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarias. Courtesy of Arena Stage.

Barnett is already looking to raise money to gather data about the festival and to produce a handbook for cities looking to do something on their own turf. She states:

“I want to know what the long term effects of this are. Three months from now, I want to be able to do a really great analysis of what tickets were sold. Did we accomplish the goal of making people outside of DC aware of how much theatre there is here? Did we get people to go to different theatres than where they normally go? And of course in the long run, are the DC theatres continuing to program more female writers than they were before the festival? Will we see subsequent productions for the plays that were supported by the festival? These are questions that will need to be answered. It’s important to make sure that the lessons learned are shared.”

Ruf added, “There’s already musings happening in Philly, Denver or broader Colorado, and elsewhere. I think that would be phenomenal. This is a first step towards gender parity; I certainly hope that eventually we won’t need a festival and it will happen on it’s own. But this is a good step in that direction.”

Take the Challenge
I’ll be heading to DC in October to check out as much of the festival as I can in one weekend and I’ll let HowlRound readers know whether I find the metro-area to be the Emerald City that I’ve been lead to expect, where every Dorothy has her glittering day.

In the meantime, the effects of the social media revolution that followed the Summit are obvious. Ryan Rilette, Producing Artistic Director at Round House Theatre and the receiver of the most severe Summit-prompted Twitter lashing, issued a challenge on Facebook. He’s willing to buy a drink for any and every one who sees more plays by women this fall than he does.

People, let me hear you say it: “Challenge accepted.”

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.