The library brought East Haddam Stage Company actor Stephanie Jackson for a one-woman show about Elizabeth Keckley. Jackson has been performing the role around the US and Canada for about 8 years, but nothing about her today seemed like a performance. She embodied the soul of this historical figure and mesmerized the packed house.
Keckley was a slave, who through her industriousness, bought her son’s and her freedom. But not before suffering the violence and indignities we’ve come to associate with woman slaves. The audience was so still during this part of the show, it seemed like we were chained to the actor. Then through the re-telling of her emancipation, the audience noticeably relaxed, chuckling and talking back to her.
Through Keckley’s smarts and hard work, she networked her way to becoming the dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln throughout her White House years. Their growing friendship and Mrs. Lincoln’s emotional reliance on Keckley were challenged after Lincoln’s assassination.
Keckley documented their relationship, which she hoped would be a justification of the First Lady’s behavior, in a book published in 1868. Instead, the book brought Keckley derision, cost her the friendship of Mrs. Lincoln, and essentially ruined her dressmaking business.
This remarkable life was also documented in a historical novel called Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, by Jennifer Chiaverini, published last year, which focuses just on the Keckley-First Lady relationship. The source for this show is Keckley’s work Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, her memoir.
In a timely and related note, tomorrow’s New York Times Book Review features a new historical novel that takes place inside Lincoln’s mind, primarily during the Civil War years, called I am Abraham, by Jerome Charyn.
I hope you can catch a performance of “Call Me Lizzy,” but if not, check out one of these intriguing books.