Recently, we asked How Soft the Lining director, M. Bevin O'Gara, a few questions about this upcoming world premiere production. Here are her answers..
What makes this piece of history relevant today?
Where to start? First off, we are on the eve (hopefully) of electing the first female president, and she is someone who also happens to have been the First Lady. Because of this, presumably we can say that the place of women in politics has shifted significantly in the last 100 plus years, but has it really?
Explain why this story is important to tell from the perspective of women, race, and politics.
History has always been told by the individuals in power. Elizabeth Keckly is an important woman in our country's history—she found her way out of slavery, created a very successful life for herself, and attempted to make her voice heard by publishing a book—and yet she is still lost to history. Finding a space for stories about women, particularly African-American women, is truly important. It's time for their stories to be told.
Talk about the stigma associated with Mary Todd Lincoln, and how that plays into this story.
Mary Lincoln was a well-educated, strong woman. Many historians claim that there wouldn't be a President Lincoln if there wasn't a Mary Todd, and yet when she made it to the White House she was set aside, no longer her husband's confidant and advisor. She also spent her life surrounded by death, losing her mother at a young age, losing multiple children, and ultimately losing her husband. What we are attempting to do with this play is provide her with a modicum of understanding. History owes a lot to her.
This show will open the day after the most contentious presidential election in some time. Is this affecting the direction and lens by which this show is produced?
Of course it is. The cast and creative teams talk about the election all the time, or really at this point we try to avoid talking about it. Several of us have been notably upset by the rhetoric and language that is being tossed about so blatantly. We've discussed being scared, but have also discussed the hope that we are on the precipice of being able to confront some of our racial and gender divides. You can't fight an enemy you don't know is there, and you can't argue with someone who remains silent. Today, it is clear these voices exist in our society, and we hope there is the opportunity to confront these issues. For Elizabeth Keckly, this is a play about learning not to be silenced and learning that her voice matters. My hope is that young people who see this play will understand that but themselves as well.
BHP produces in an intimate setting. Does this enhance, or make challenging, directing this piece?
While this is an epic story told over decades, the tie that binds it is the affection, understanding, and distance between these two women. By staging it in an intimate way allows us to highlight that story. It also pulls the audience into the theatricality of the piece. The audience is so close they are almost a part of the story.
What is the role and symbolism of clothing in this piece?
For both of these women, clothing represents their power. For Lizzy, being able to make the best garments is what set her apart, allows her to buy her freedom, and rise to prominence. For Mary Lincoln, getting to represent the status and stateliness of the Office of the President through fashion is how she achieves her power. At the top of the play, the clothes are what unites them, when Mary sets out to save herself from financial ruin by selling her clothes, ultimately selling part of their shared history. To make a parallel to today, the New York Times recently printed a piece about how Michelle Obama's Versace dress for the final State Dinner was not only a gesture toward the Italian ambassadors she was entertaining, but also a feminist statement due to its chainmail design.
Recently the role of first ladies, and perhaps, first husbands, has been in the news. What was the role of the first lady when Mrs. Lincoln was in the White House?
Mary Lincoln transformed the White House; she made it into a place for stately business, and found a way to make it represent the office, her husband, and the country by bringing it out of disrepair. What the White House represents now was, at least in part, created by Mary Lincoln.
How Soft the Lining runs November 5 to November 20 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA in Boston, MA. Click here for tickets and more information.