Mary T. and Lizzy K.
"Mary T and Lizzy K," a new play by director Tazewell Thompson, nicely captured the moments of an unlikely friendship between two women during the turbulent times of the Civil War. The play features the talented cast members of Naomi Jacobson as Mary Todd Lincoln, Sameerah Luqmann-Harris as Elizabeth Keckly, Joy Jones as Ivy and Thomas Adrian Simpson as Abe Lincoln.
The cast’s performance was very impressive as each character came into his or her own quickly in the play, a major plus in capturing the audience right away. Every character brought their own uniqueness to their roles, which made "Mary T. & Lizzy K." not so much a political history lesson about the Lincolns, but more a glimpse into their personal lives and how they interacted with those closest to them.
The interaction between Jacobson and Simpson was filled with both humor and sadness as Mr. and Mrs. President (as Mary Todd liked to be referred) showed the dynamics of living a public life and how that can take a toll on a marriage and other aspects of personal lives. Examples of this conflict were evident when Abe Lincoln wanted the White House to have an open-door policy while Mary Todd wanted it to be their own personal space. Also, she wanted more of the President’s time devoted to her instead of the war.
The title of the play well represented what "Mary T. & Lizzy K." was about since the focus was on Mary Todd’s unlikely bond with her dressmaker Elizabeth Keckly. Both women lived parallel lives but were different in many ways; Lincoln had a privileged upbringing but Keckly was a slave who bought her freedom.
Their personalities were what blurred those parallel lines throughout the play. At the beginning of the play as Lizzy was adjusting a new dress on Mary Todd, one may have dismissed the play as another white woman/black servant production. But as the play went on, one could see that the production was a lot deeper than what first met the eye.
Both women represented power, strength, dominance, and determination to get what they desired, a refreshing viewpoint since many productions in that time period often depict women not as individuals but as background figures to men.
Both Mary Todd and Elizabeth shared the experiences of loss and frustration, which also created a bond between them as Keckly reluctantly shared her story of losing her lover to the pressures of slavery as he turned abusive, and also losing her son on the battlefield.
Although a quick scene, Keckly’s background alone showed the impact that slavery had on the black family and how the emasculation of black men took devastating tolls emotionally. Though Mary Todd was married, she felt as though she had lost her husband to the public and the war.
Mary Todd was also dealing with the death of her son Willie, who died due to illness. As the lights dimmed to capture the moment of darkness and depression of her still dealing with the loss of her son and possibly her sanity, it showed death, frustration and loss have no color and how two human beings were doing their best to navigate their lives despite the pain with which they were dealing.
Keckly’s assistant Ivy complimented both characters, as her subtler, cheery, submissive demeanor was like water to the fiery personalities of Mary Todd and Elizabeth. At first, Ivy seemed like the typical "yes" type assistant, but as she related the story of how the abuse she endured by a controlling man caused her to end up with one eye (which explained the eye patch that the audience probably wondered about) and moments where she stood up to Elizabeth’s dominance over her regarding her pay (and thus demanding various items to compensate for her payment) showed her rising to an untapped power that was unexpected.
The small, close space of the Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle captured the intimacy of the production and the audience. Overall, "Mary T. & Lizzy K." represented a time of racial, cultural and sexual divide.
The production can be used to look into many questions regarding those same issues that are still in question today. "Mary T & Lizzy K." not only shows an unlikely friendship between two women but also how that unlikely friendship touches on many cultural issues that are still relevant.
"Mary T. & Lizzy K" runs through April 28 at the Kogod Cradle at the Arena Stage, 1101 6th St SW in Washington, DC. For tickets or information, call 202-488-3300 or visit the Arena Stage website at arenastage.org for more details.