Play Review – “Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley: From Slavery to Modiste”

[used with permission]

In June 2018 I had the opportunity to attend a production of the new stage play Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley: From Slavery to Modiste at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego, California. Entering the theater, I was unfamiliar with the details of Keckley’s life though I knew the basic story about her post-Civil War troubles with Mrs. Lincoln. Exiting after the short, one-act play, I had a greater appreciation for this remarkable woman and definitely wanted to dig into the history books to learn more. (Which I did!)

I think one of the benefits to community historical theater is the chance to introduce a friend or family member to history through the entertainment. This time I persuaded my dad to go with me, and we had some great discussions about the past on the way home.

When we entered the theater room and took our seats, we faced a raised platform lined with chairs and a few costume props – old fashion hats, bonnets, shawls, etc. To the right of the stage sat an old sewing machine and table, cleaned and polished, but standing alone. In front of the stage, a dressmaker’s mannequin displayed a dark dress.

Andrea Agosto gave an inspiring performance as Elizabeth Keckley, recounting in first-person Keckley’s life as a slave, how she purchased her freedom, and how she built her dressmaking business with good sense and integrity. The ensemble of actors and actresses interacted with Agosto and portrayed character’s from Keckley’s life, including her master and mistress, dressmaking customers, Frederick Douglass, Mrs. Lincoln, Robert Lincoln, friends, and apprentices.

The script – researched and written by Claudia Thompson – presented “Mrs. Keckley’s story through historical data with contemporary reflection.” Filled with lively, historically-accurate details and moments of wrenching sadness, it gave a solid glimpse into the life of a strong woman who lived in slavery and abuse but found a way to free herself and recreate her life and story. I appreciated the highlights on Keckley’s inspiring work-ethics and how she always tried to help others.

Elizabeth Keckley and her relationship with Mrs. Lincoln during the Civil War years and the break-up of that friendship when Keckley published her book have been the subject of gossip and valid historical discussion. The stage play focused on Keckley’s side of the story: she wanted to write a book to tell her story and help Mrs. Lincoln get financial assistance. Then organized chaos took over the stage as the ensemble characters rose to praise or condemn the book and author; the clamorous chorus silenced Keckley – a poignant reminder how society’s opinions can overshadow truth and intent, creating a dilemma or myth for future historians.

I won’t spoil the ending of the play, but I will say it was a powerful moment, reflecting to the past and sharing Keckley’s religious faith and looking to the future, praising the power to overcome life’s hardships.

[used with permission]

At the end of the production, attendees were encouraged to take printed literature provided by the producer and playwright, including a short historical biography about Keckley, a resource list, and photographs related to her life and legacy. It’s wonderful to see this openness and dedication to historical research! Returning home, I read one of the recommended books – Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley by Jennifer Fleischner – and learned more, delighted to find the accuracy of the stage production.

What’s in the future for this historical play? I’ve been in contact with some of the production team, and happily, several school districts have shown interest and may host a show tour! Interested in more details about sponsoring the show or hosting/attending a production, please reach out to Katherine Harroff (KHarroff@theoldglobe.org) who is currently coordinating the production and is the Arts Engagement Programs Associate.

Cheers to Claudia Thompson, the production team, and the cast for bringing Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley’s story to the stage and offering another chance to introduce theater attendees and classrooms to historical discussions about Women’s History, Black History, and Civil War Studies