By C.J. Williams
‘How Soft the Lining’ world premiere – written by Kirsten Greenidge; Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara; Scenic Design by Rebecca Lerhoff-Joy; Costume Design by Kathryn Schondek; Lighting Design by PJ Strachman; Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will. Presented by Bad Habit Productions at Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 527 Tremont Street, Boston through November 20
What does it take to be treated as a full person? The law, or something more?
‘How Soft the Lining’ – the title of Kirsten Greenidge’s newest play – ran through my mind as I exited the premiere performance at the Calderwood Pavilion: how soft the lining can be on our pet prejudices, but how hard the outside when those prejudices deny a fellow human being their dignity. ‘How Soft the Lining’ follows the relationship between Mary Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley—a freed slave – and explores both these themes, as well as the historical race relations that highlight our human capacity to deny the personhood of our fellow men and women. But rather than preach, Greenidge is wise enough to allow her story to do all the talking. And does it ever.
Using a minimalist set and a barebones cast, ‘Lining’ opens with the post-assassination reunion of Keckley and Lincoln. The two women meet in Central Park, where it soon becomes clear that Mary Lincoln is in dire straits financially, and that Keckley has closed her dressmaking shop to come to her aid – and to be at her call. Keckley is cheerful and encouraging, while Mary Lincoln seesaws between gratitude and a childish doomsday drama. What becomes immediately clear is that Mary, unintentionally, expects something from Elizabeth. Is it the expectation of a friend, or that of a mistress? It isn’t clear, so the narrative quickly flashes back to the past. (One of the strengths in the staging and direction hinges on the scene changes, which deftly use lighting and music to shift the audience from place to place, and back and forth in time.)
What shifts us into the past from this first scene is unmistakably the word ‘friend’ – which performers, sound and lighting catch on and hesitate, just as Elizabeth hesitates when Mary bursts out, “Of course my friend!”
From there, ‘Lining’ moves swiftly through past events in both women’s lives, from Elizabeth’s upbringing as a slave – where she is required to keep a mistress’s baby quiet when she herself is only 4 years old; to fourteen-year old Mary’s horror at the sight of slaves at auction – children taken from parents, wives separated from husbands – in Kentucky. Elizabeth eventually becomes a seamstress, and buys freedom for her and her son. Mary meets Abraham Lincoln (in a delightful scene in which eloquent Abe is tongue-tied and cannot recall the Shakespearean sonnet he wishes to regale Mary with), and blithely claims she will be a president’s wife. Somehow, these women’s lives intertwine as Elizabeth sets up a milliner’s shop in Washington and becomes Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker. At this point, we all know the conclusion to the Lincoln presidency; and the play includes it. But that conclusion is not the conclusion of Lining; and it is perhaps not even the conclusion we believe it to be historically.
I don’t want to spoil the denouement of this thoroughly engaging foray into the past. Greenidge chose a dramatic subject when she picked the story of Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress (and the question hovers throughout the play – friend as well?), Elizabeth Keckley. But more than that, she has taken the circumstances of these women’s lives, and with a storyteller’s knack has brought them directly into our present.
Where ‘Lining’ truly shines is in its ability to highlight the deep complexity of relationship and societal prejudice without using its characters as props for a message. Both Lincoln and Keckley are strong women (portrayed with delightful versatility and depth by Elle Borders and Bridgette Hays, to the point that Borders portrays Elizabeth at 4 with complete believability), and both are flawed. To some extent, Elizabeth’s resignation (or acceptance) plays into being treated as less-than; and to the same degree, Mary’s blindness and privilege promote inequality. Blame is neither assigned nor implied to either in the imbalance in their friendship.
The play gives no pat answers, and no convenient happy ending.
What it does give us is a story that shines a light through the past into our present, challenging us to demand of ourselves – as Elizabeth demands of a girl who works at her shop, “You must say exactly what you mean, and mean exactly what you say.”
Do we use labels, so as not to say human when it comes to another human being our lives? Do we say friendship, and mean something else? When we say we want equality and justice and the erasure of racial or class prejudice…do mean that personally, in each moment of our lives, that we treat our fellow men and women with that dignity?
Like that first pause on the word ‘friend’, Greenidge shows that maybe our blindnesses and willingness to accept injustice aren’t fixed by laws – not even by laws as amazing as the 13th Amendment – but by friendship. Prejudice doesn’t end with a law. Prejudice ends where friendship begins. Because – as Greenidge subtly shows in her trot through Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley’s relationship – we must see each other as equals to truly call each other friends. Laws do not give us that sight. But perhaps a story can. For the entire audience, but especially for the youth attending, I hope that message runs deep, and sticks, deeper than the wounds that the Civil War, and slavery, left in the blind parts of our hearts and minds. For more info, go to: http://www.badhabitproductions.org/how-soft-the-lining