'Mary T. and Lizzy K.': History's Unlikely Friendship

March 25, 2013

More than a century before Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln offered an intimate portrait of the 16th president and his family, a memoir from the first lady's dressmaker offered a glimpse into the Lincoln White House.

Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln's seamstress and maybe her closest friend, told her story of slavery and self-emancipation, and her relationship with the Lincolns in a tell-all memoir called Behind The Scenes.

The play Mary T. and Lizzy K., directed by Tazewell Thompson, focuses on the unlikely friendship between these two women. It focuses on their relationship inside and outside of the White House, all the while displaying the elaborate fashion that Keckley designed.

"Here in the White House, here in Washington — was a former slave, very close, very intimate with Mary Todd Lincoln, and they had this very deep sisterhood of a relationship," Thompson tells NPR's Neal Conan.

Though Keckley's memoir is valued as a historical treasure now, it was considered quite scandalous at the time.

"It was a breach of contract. She didn't have to sign anything saying that she would not write something about the first lady, the president, her years in the White House. But it was just understood."

The book also complicated the relationship between the two women. It included letters between the two women. Lincoln felt betrayed.

Thompson was commissioned to write the play in 2001. Consumed by his work directing opera and theater, he wasn't able to focus on the script until 2009.
"So I'm just rolling along, writing this play, making changes, doing workshops of this play. And then, suddenly, in 2012, there is all this interest about the Civil War and about Lincoln.

And then this movie comes out, and I thought, well, disaster. No one's going to want to see yet another play or another anything about Lincoln, but that's not been the case.

Thompson says the buzz around Lincoln has helped to generate interest in his production.

The play runs through April 28 at the Arena Stage, Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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