Roger Q. Mason Looks at LIZZY - Who Knew History Could be so Intriguing?

So much to see, so little time. How about binge-watching 3 to 6 shows on stage in one theater and still having time for dinner and drinks? Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA will be curating an inspiring variety of one-act treasures, mostly world premieres, written by fourteen of their top playwrights. The inaugural ONE ACT FESTIVAL this summer brings a feast of entertainment to audiences in Atwater Village, presented in several different programs labeled A, B, and C, all under 100 minutes. Each offering will be brimming with short and provocative comedies and dramas beginning on July 7 and continuing through July 31, 2016. Producer, actor, and playwright Roderick Menzies tells us “these fourteen plays range from funny to gripping, wild to serene, reflective to provocative.” Co-producer Lee Costello is in solid agreement with Menzies about these new American plays coming out of EST/LA’s renowned Playwrights Unit.

Roger Q. Mason - Photo courtesy of Roger Q. Mason

Roger Q. Mason’s play LIZZY is about the all-but-forgotten and poignant story of what happened to Mary Todd Lincoln after she was widowed by Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.Playwright Mason’s work mines the intersection of race, history, and memory, recurring themes in his work. Mason’s plays include “Orange Woman: A Ballad for a Moor” and “The Duet,” which have been seen across the U.S. A finalist of the inaugural Activate: Midwest New Play Festival and the winner of an Encore Producer's Award, Mason’s accolades precede him. 

LIZZY, drawn from actual historical accounts, is a one-act window into the personal, collaborative, and often turbulent relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her personal seamstress and modiste Elizabeth Keckley on the eve of what became known as the “old clothes scandal.” A former slave who rose to become the premiere clothing designer for the political elite in Washington D.C., Elizabeth Keckley was Mary Lincoln’s sole designer and confidante while Mary was the First Lady. Underscoring the often controversial fashions that Keckley created was the insider reputation for being the only person - other than Abe Lincoln himself - able to manage Mary’s famously erratic behavior. 

Cathy Diane Tomlin and Mona Lee Wylde - Photo courtesy of EST/LA

Roger Q. Mason explores this tender but volatile friendship while shedding light on the unusual influence Keckley leveraged in the media of the day to help Mary earn money selling the clothing she actually wore during Lincoln’s presidency. 

The relationship and events that your play is based on is not a widely known part of American history. How did the story capture your attention and what was the intrigue that moved you to write about it? 

Mason: Almost 10 years ago, I came upon a book called “Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley.” It opened on an uncanny scene: two women - one black, one white; one a Kentucky heiress, another a former slave - sitting together in Central Park in 1868 to discuss a clothing auction. Lincoln, still in mourning for her husband’s murder and struggling for money, enlisted Keckley, her then-estranged modiste and confidante, to help her stage an auction to ameliorate her crippling personal debt.  I couldn’t put the book down. This was a historical pair I hadn’t heard of before. A story I wanted to explore. And thus the idea for LIZZYwas born.  

Cathy Diane Tomlin as Elizabeth Keckley - Photo courtesy of EST/LA

 What was the most stunning discovery you made while doing research for the play?

Mason: Research for the piece has taken me to Washington D.C., Virginia, and North Carolina - amongst other places. While at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, I discovered some rich and tragic information about Elizabeth Keckley’s early years. She was raised in Hillsborough, North Carolina, by the Burwells. They owned and operated a finishing school for girls. Elizabeth was sexually abused by her master while helping his wife to facilitate the education of young white women. Through this experience and her childhood at the finishing school, Keckley learned how to use feminine wiles to buy and maintain her freedom. She would later go on to literally buy her freedom through selling clothes to socialites in St. Louis when she lived with another of the Burwells’ relatives in the Midwest. There was a time when her Missouri master would borrow against her earnings as a seamstress. Her business savvy, impeccable personal style, and cultivation of a lifestyle brand (certainly before it’s time) helped Keckley become the premiere designer to the political elite in D.C. 

Mona Lee Wylde as Mary Todd Lincoln - Photo courtesy of EST/LA

How did you choose a perspective from which to write about?  

Mason: Many times my plays come from a sound or an image or a word.  Once I have that, I find my vantage point from which to begin the work.  I call it “something I can believe in.” Then I start to write and wander and build and tear down and regroup till I return to that thing which started me on the journey to begin with. 

Does the story stay true to the documentation made by Elizabeth Keckley or does it include historical moments pulled from political archives? 

Mason: Like many of my works, this is a piece of historical fantasia. It is based on what I found in the archives, but I take some liberties - as I feel I should. The purpose of this kind of work is to stretch the cultural imagination of the audience. It gives voice to silenced narratives and unleashes new possibilities within our understanding of established “historical truth.” 

Cathy Diane Tomlin and Mona Lee Wylde - Photo courtesy of EST/LA

Are you a Lincoln era history buff in particular or does your interest span through other centuries and worldwide? 

Mason: Over the course of developing this play and two others surrounding the Civil War era, I became a Lincoln buff. The partnering plays are a solo show about John Wilkes Booth and a two-hander exploring Lincoln’s relationship with his legal secretary, Elmer Ellsworth. I return to this era continually because there existed so much magic and ritual in every day life at that time. However, my work does not focus exclusively on the Civil War - or history, for that matter. I’m interested in giving voice to the silenced across time, space, and place. 

Is there another history play in the works, or are you heading in a totally different direction after this one? 

Mason: There’s a lot of new material right now. I have a gender fluidity play based on the 14 Stations of the Cross, two new musicals and a male burlesque show inspired by Mae West’s scandalous Broadway offering “The Pleasure Man.” I’m playing with form and the audience/performer contract now. Anachronism piques my interest as a simultaneously familiarizing and dissociating force. You’ll see a little of that in EST/LA’s production of LIZZY. I’m motivated to develop work that has a transformative effect on how we relate to ourselves, to each other, and to our origins. If that means digging into a special collection, eavesdropping on a conversation on the bus, or prying things from my own lived experience, I’m there. It’s necessary work, and somebody’s got to do it. So count me in!  

EST/LA ONE ACT FESTIVAL runs through July 31, 2016, with Thursday to Sunday performances alternating for Programs A, B, and C. Ensemble Studio Theatre/LAis located in the Atwater Village Theatre complex 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Tickets are $25 on Brown Paper Tickets, $30 at the door, and $50 for the entire festival program. For information and reservations, call 818-839-1197 or go online at the Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA or Brown Paper Tickets at www.estlosangeles.brownpapertickets.com

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