If you’ve seen the Steven Spielberg movie LINCOLN you will easily recall the character Elizabeth Keckly (also spelled Keckley), a former slave serving as dressmaker and confidant to First Lady Mary Lincoln. In the movie she is played lovingly by Gloria Reuben and through the eyes of the character moviegoers experience the passage of the 13th Amendment as something deep and stirring.
Elizabeth Keckly’s own real-life story is compelling and custom-made for adaptation to stage or screen. Born near Petersburg, Virginia, Keckly endured the harsher experiences of slavery before eventually buying her own freedom and that of her son. With talents as a seamstress she settled in Washington, DC, where she made formal dresses for some of the capital’s most socially-prominent women including the wives ofJefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.
Soon after Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as president, Keckly was hired by Mrs. Lincoln as her personal modiste. The two developed a deep friendship which allowed Keckly to become and intimate inside observer of life in the Lincoln White House. Later in life she published a book, Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868).
During the closing days of the Civil War President and Mrs. Lincoln came to Petersburg soon after its evacuation by Confederate troops. Keckly was with the couple as they visited Union garrison headquarters at Centre Hill Mansion, a prominent home that she would have seen countless times as a younger woman. The irony and triumph of returning to Petersburg as part of the presidential party after her earlier years as a slave in the area was surely not lost on Keckly.
Elizabeth Keckly will once again return to Petersburg in February, this-time as the subject of a one-woman play at Sycamore Rouge in Old Towne Petersburg. They Called Me Lizzy … From Slavery to the White House will be staged February 21st at 8:00 p.m. The one-hour performance will be followed by a discussion hosted by starring actress Stephanie Jackson and playwright Kandie Carle.
“We’ve wanted to bring They Called Me Lizzy … to Sycamore Rouge for some time, and we’re thrilled our schedule allowed for it this February,” said kb saine, producing artistic director of Sycamore Rouge. “Not only is it a perfect way to showcase something new in Black History Month but we’re also excited that the public may have a better understanding of the time in which Keckly lived thanks to the recent Lincoln movie,” she added.
Tickets to the play are available online at www.sycamorerouge.org or by calling 804-957-5707.
Much of Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN was filmed in Old Towne Petersburg, and cast and crew were known to have frequented restaurants and coffee shops there. You can create your own LINCOLN movie experience both in Petersburg and in Richmond by visiting the LINCOLN Movie Trail, a guide to film locations as well as restaurants and other business where the stars were seen.