NEAL CONAN, HOST:
The movie "Lincoln" provided an intimate portrait of our 16th president and his family. But our first glimpse inside the Lincoln White House came from Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker to the first lady, maybe her closest friend; and the author of a post-war memoir that combined her own story of slavery and self-emancipation, and her relationship with the Lincolns. A new play, written and directed by Tazewell Thompson, tells the story of these two women. "Mary T. and Lizzy K" premiered earlier this month at the Arena Stage, here in Washington. And Tazewell Thompson joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.
TAZEWELL THOMPSON: It's my great pleasure. Thank you.
CONAN: And Elizabeth Keckley wrote, I guess, what we'd now call a tell-all book or a behind-the-scenes; and at the time, this was quite something of a sensation.
THOMPSON: Well, it was quite scandalous that she would write a book like this because it was a breach of contract. There was not - she didn't actually 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. You would never write about those you were working for and, of course, she was a black woman and a former slave, writing about a Caucasian family.
CONAN: The Caucasian family.
THOMPSON: The Caucasian family who had taken her in.
CONAN: And it is interesting because the book was, in part, to get some money for which - of course, Mary Todd Lincoln - famously - did not pay her.
THOMPSON: That's right. But it was also - the book was really written to restore the reputation of Mary Todd Lincoln. There was this - a huge scandal when Mary and Elizabeth went to New York, to sell all of the clothes that Mary wanted to sell, to raise money.
CONAN: She tried to do it anonymously.
THOMPSON: She tried to do it anonymously, and Elizabeth was the go-between. And it was at 609 Broadway, in New York City, and nothing sold. People came in, they rummaged through the garments; they sniffed the clothes, even; they felt what was going on. And the outrage was that during the Civil War, that Mary was spending a fortune on her clothes. And she was having clothes, of course, made by Elizabeth Keckley.
So the book that Elizabeth wrote was to restore the reputation. Now, what Elizabeth didn't know was that the publisher had taken Elizabeth's letters that Mary wrote to Elizabeth and published them as well. And that's where Mary felt most betrayed.
CONAN: During the play, both characters feel betrayed. Elizabeth, unfair that she never got paid; Mary can't believe Elizabeth would write about her in the book. Let's listen to an excerpt.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MARY T. AND LIZZY K.")
SAMEERAH LUQMAAN-HARRIS: (as Elizabeth Keckley) I've worked too hard all of my life to have nothing put aside, nothing to show for the work and to have my future, my survival tied up in what you owe me.
NAOMI JACOBSON: (as Mary Todd Lincoln) You were working for Mary Todd Lincoln, the first lady of the land; Mrs. President, an invaluable calling card. Wasn't that payment enough? Who could wish for better reference, or greater collateral? You had the world stage of the White House as your platform, to display your clothes. And you took it. You took my trust and my friendship - and warped it into a book.
LUQMAAN-HARRIS: And what did I have that you didn't take from me? Sucked up all my energies, stole away every extra, precious time I had.
CONAN: And that's an excerpt from the new play that's here at Arena Stage, in Washington. Of course, the one thing we know about that conversation is that it never took place.
THOMPSON: No. Well, she never visited - Elizabeth never visited Mary in the asylum. And they might have had a conversation that was close to this; I have no idea. I mean, this is all from my imagination, built up on what I know about the two of them, that they were very close friends - which is extraordinary when you think that during the Civil War, during a war that was really, as we all know, fought because of slavery, and 11 states seceding from the Union; 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. And that's the play that I was interested in writing. Originally, the play was going to be about Lincoln and his boyhood friends, and the men in his Cabinet. But that was turning into a term paper. And so...
THOMPSON: ...once I read Elizabeth's book, I knew that this was the subject that could be very stage-worthy.
CONAN: We should point out that the president does make an appearance in the play, himself.
THOMPSON: Yes, he does. And he's - there's quite a big scene between the president and Mary. I just - I had to get in something about their - both their emotional states, not only how they felt about the death of their beloved son that they doted on - Willie - who died during the White House years, but that they were both - while suited for each other, they were also completely unsuitable for each other.
They both had such emotional swings. They could be top-of-the-morning at one point, and then the next moment, they could be grieving or shrieking at each other. And she was filled with vicious jealousies of any woman who even deign to look at the president. And he was a manic-depressive. So I had to get both of them in the scene somewhere, where they confronted these things.
CONAN: It is - indeed, as we saw in the movie, Mary Todd Lincoln upbraids Abraham for the carnage of the Civil War, and for killing so many sons. And, indeed, one of those sons who was lost was Elizabeth Keckley's son.
THOMPSON: Was Elizabeth Keckley's son, who was fighting for the Union Army and passed as a white soldier.
CONAN: Passed as a white - I did not know that.
THOMPSON: Yes. He joined the Army, and he was passing for white. Now, Elizabeth was raped by a white man on her plantation, and gave birth to a son who passed for white all his life; and so he joined the Union Army as a white man.
CONAN: Yet you introduce us to the violence of slavery - but not through her story, but through the story of her assistant, Ivy.
THOMPSON: A completely made-up, fictional character from my imagination. I thought it was important to do just that. On a couple of levels, Elizabeth always wanted to have a school. She always wanted to have a student. So I wanted to give her that student, and that assistant, in this play; that she could finally have someone assisting her. But also, this was a character that I felt that I should bring in the brutality and the viciousness of the war into the White House, and into this play.
And we are - we - she's - she has one eye, this character, Ivy. She wears an eye patch in the play. And we found - find out indeed, how this happened, how she ended up with one eye. And it's a very brutal story that she relates. She's a - on top of that all, she's a very optimistic and positive character. And it's a character that I love in the play, and so I'm glad I was able to bring her in.
CONAN: Yet in terms of exploitation, yes, Elizabeth Keckley not paid by Mary Todd Lincoln; and of course, Ivy not paid by Elizabeth Keckley.
THOMPSON: Elizabeth Keckley. Well, it was a trickle-down economy.
THOMPSON: If the first lady had paid her dressmaker, then the dressmaker could pay her assistants and student.
CONAN: Yet it's Mary Todd Lincoln, when told of the arrangement that Ivy - well, she can't read. She doesn't know how to add figures. She's trusting Elizabeth Keckley to keep charge of her money, and it is Mary Todd Lincoln who raises an eyebrow at that.
THOMPSON: How dare she? And she does. It's - the nerve of her. (LAUGHTER) I love that little moment in the play, yes.
CONAN: It is - it's quite a striking moment. And then there is a moment of rebellion on Ivy's part, late in the play.
THOMPSON: I don't want to give it away because it's at the very end of the play. But Ivy is "paid," in quotes.
CONAN: She gets hers.
THOMPSON: She gets hers, and she gets it from Elizabeth Keckley.
CONAN: Now, you move back - forward and back in time. At different points, we're at the White House during the presidential years - otherwise, how could Abraham Lincoln make an appearance?
THOMPSON: That's right.
CONAN: We're also post-Civil War, with Mary Todd Lincoln in the asylum.
THOMPSON: Asylum, yes.
CONAN: And throughout, however, she's being dressed. She's constantly being dressed.
THOMPSON: Well, she loved clothes. As an early child, she loved her mother. Her mother died when she was 6 years old. But she remembered that her mother dressed impeccably. This had an effect on her. Now, also as a girl, she was a tomboy. She loved to climb trees. Her brother, who tried to prevent her from climbing trees - because she was a girl, and she should be doing girlhood things - he made a dress for her out of twigs and sticks. And it was shaped like - eventually, what she would wear in the White House, like a crinoline cage.
So at a very early age, there was this influence of appearances matter, and girls should have their place, and they should be thinking about clothes; where she loved clothes. So yes, throughout the play, the audience gets to see how Elizabeth Keckley puts together a dress.
CONAN: And very well indeed...
THOMPSON: Very well.
CONAN: ...as it turns out.
CONAN: Yeah. The pagoda - it's interesting, she describes one particular set of designs as.
THOMPSON: That's correct. What Elizabeth is wearing is - underneath her underskirts - is a pagoda-shaped undergarment. Prior to that, it was the bell-shape, which is what Ivy's wearing. But with Elizabeth, who was oh, so forward-thinking in fashion, she wanted Mary to introduce what is called the crinoline cage, which took away the very round, bell-shaped - extraordinarily exaggerated bell-shape from underneath the garments of what the women were wearing in the 19th century.
Mary rebels against that at first, until she finds out that the crown heads of Europe are wearing it, and all the fashionable aides of the society in Europe are wearing it. And she eventually wears it. Whether it's historically accurate that she first wore it on the night of Ford's Theatre, I don't know. But she did, eventually, wear that.
CONAN: We're talking with Tazewell Thompson, who's the writer and director of the new play "Mary T. and Lizzy K.," which just debuted at the Arena Stage here in Washington, D.C. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And you have a - well, I guess a problem that is unusual. We've had these images of the president and Mary Todd Lincoln seared into our brains by Daniel Day-Lewis and company, in the Spielberg movie. Is that a problem, or is that something that you find benefits your production?
THOMPSON: Well, I have to tell you, I was originally commissioned to write this play - I'm glad you're sitting - in 2001.
CONAN: My goodness.
CONAN: Speedwriting is not your forte.
THOMPSON: Well, I'm a very busy - and luckily so - director of opera and theater, and I had no time to sit down and write a play until 2009. And my first draft was in 2010. 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. It's really - the movie has helped the sales of the play tremendously. The tickets are just flying out of the box office. So I'm very thrilled about that.
CONAN: Congratulations on that.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
CONAN: I have to ask you about another choice you made, and that is - just reading up a little bit on Elizabeth Keckley today - that she got a lot of other commissions from other white women in Washington; indeed, from Gen. Lee's wife, from Jefferson Davis' wife.
THOMPSON: And Ulysses Grant's wife, and all of the fashionably high-society white women in this - in the District. She had her own shop in Washington, D.C. A black woman, a former slave, had her own shop.
But when Mary came along - and this was about a week or so before the Inauguration - and she wanted a dress from Elizabeth immediately, after she saw how fabulous the clothes that Elizabeth was producing for these wonderful women in town. She brought in Elizabeth as her own, exclusive dressmaker. So Mary was very sharp, very smart. Her business sense, in terms of dealing with Elizabeth Keckley, was not the greatest. But she recognized talent.
CONAN: You also suggest she was not alone in declining to play - pay her bills; at least, not to the former slave. There's an actress who is indeed, appearing in "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre; who's also stiffed her for three dresses.
THOMPSON: She had made dresses for Laura Keene. And Laura Keene was famous for ducking out of town, not just from Elizabeth Keckley - paying those bills; but the actors who worked for Laura Keene had to chase her down, to get paid. She would say, oh, I'll see you on the train and you'll - I'll hand you your money on the train. And of course, she would take another train. Or she would leave a hotel and sneak out around - I mean, she would, you know, dress in disguise. As an actress, she had many wigs and dresses that she could change, and she would leave the hotel.
She had her own theater in New York City. It was named the Laura Keene Theater. And even with those who worked for her, she was not a very good manager in terms of - she brought in the best peoples to work for her, but she didn't pay them.
CONAN: This could be a problem, in the long run. And I'm sure working in the theater for a long time, you've had no experience with that whatsoever.
THOMPSON: Oh, never. Oh, no. (LAUGHTER)
CONAN: But I have to ask, also, about - you mentioned Elizabeth Keckley wanted to start this school, and teach other girls and women how to sew and to make a living themselves; to be trades people, to be professionals. She was also an activist. She started something called the Contraband Society.
THOMPSON: Yes. It's extraordinary that she did this, and she got the first lady to help her. And Mary was quite active with her. And that was about helping newly freed slaves and black, wounded soldiers find a way to work themselves through their difficulties. She raised money for these men and women and children; many of them who were living in Anacostia, or the southeast of Washington. And she helped them get on their feet. Now, many blacks who were recently freed slaves, when they left the plantation, they didn't know of the world outside of the plantation. They didn't know their way around the cities and the back roads. All they knew - their life, their world - was on the plantation.
Elizabeth Keckley came to their aid and helped them to get jobs, to find their footing, to help them settle down in a house. This was an incredible woman at the time, and she got Mary Todd Lincoln to help her in this. And they were, both of them, very active forces. The other thing that Elizabeth did - and Mary did, also - was they visited the soldiers, the wounded soldiers, unannounced. The first lady and Elizabeth would come in with food, with songs, helping them write letters.
CONAN: The story of their relationship, and their feeling of ultimately being betrayed by each other, is told in the new play by Tazewell Thompson; and it's called "Mary T. and Lizzy K." It recently premiered at the Arena Stagem here in Washington, D.C. The writer and director is here with us in Studio 3A. Thank you very much for your time today.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
CONAN: Tomorrow, the Supreme Court takes on Proposition 8, California's same-sex marriage ban. We'll follow the arguments with David Savage of The Los Angeles Times. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
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