The title of Tazewell Thompson's latest work, which just had its world premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., seems to promise the exploration of a meaningful friendship between two historically significant women. Mary T. and Lizzy K. focuses on the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln (Naomi Jacobson) and her dressmaker and confidant, freed slave Elizabeth Keckly (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris). The narrative, however, shows us very little of their kinship that could be interpreted as mutually amicable. Thompson foregrounds the extreme asymmetry between the two women, stressing that Lizzy was rarely paid for the beautiful garments she created for Mary Todd (which are stunningly brought to life by costume designer Merrily Murray-Walsh). Their personal interactions come across as occasionally abusive and we get to see very little real intimacy. It is unclear what Thompson — who directed this play in addition to writing it — wants us to ultimately feel about the connection between these women.
Though the play does not shy away from the unpleasant sides of Mary Todd's personality, Naomi Jacobson portrays her so lovingly that she is ultimately sympathetic. Thomas Adrian Simpson is a striking (though oddly spry) doppelgänger for Lincoln. Lizzy, however, is the most curious historical figure in the play, as we generally know the least about her beforehand. Though Elizabeth Keckly was present in Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln, she was mostly relegated to silent close-ups and one short exchange with the president. Here, Luqmaan-Harris as Lizzie owns the stage, as she practically barks most of her lines with such authority and imperativeness that she commands the attention of both the audience and the other characters.
This confidence is refreshing in the midst of a play that displays transparent anxiety about its own authority to tell stories. Mary T. and Lizzy K. is ultimately a memory play that is generated from the confines of Mary Todd's incarceration in a madhouse, so the majority of the events we see are already in question from the start and only get more suspect as the play progresses. Groping for details about her life, Mary Todd is the playwright and audience's avatar, attempting (and often failing) to satisfyingly reimagine the past. Subtle but persistent fog throughout the stage and an excellent surprise bit of stagecraft (that I won't spoil here) remind us that we're seeing the past through a haze, not only of time, but of our own limited imaginations.
In the first scene, Mary Todd strongly indicts Lizzy for writing an unsanctioned biography of their time in the White House. She asks, "You had to take my life? My accumulation and stack of memories from me? Does the idea not seem despicable to you?" Throughout the play, Thompson seems to be asking these questions of himself and the audience as well. In the context of a play commissioned as part of the American President's Project, this seems a perplexing set of questions to ask. Still, in a city where we trade on reiterating presidential mythology as fact, perhaps this ambivalence is a bit brave.