One of our leading roles in A Civil War Christmas is a name you might not remember from the history books. Nonetheless, Elizabeth Keckley was an emblematic representative of the arduous road to freedom traveled by numerous black Americans prior to emancipation. Played by Downey Arts Coalition member Aimee Calligari, you will be moved by the quite, strong grace of both the actress and character.
Born into slavery, Keckley was a strong, motivated woman. She said in her autobiography that when she was beaten as a young girl, she resisted her master and refused to cry or yell during the beating. Her master was eventually moved to tears by her fortitude, begged her forgiveness, and swore never to beat her again. Later, she was raped by a white man in the community and bore a son. Keckley named him George after her stepfather. Later in life, George joined the Union army and sadly died in the first battle he fought.
Keckley learned to sew at a young age and by her teenage years was adept at dressmaking. She spent most of her hours practicing this trade as a slave and hired woman. Playwright Paula Vogel often has her speaking of “putting her hands to use.” This skill became very useful to her, as it kept her from doing more laborious slave duties, built herself goodwill among important women, and eventually she used her earnings to buy her own freedom, and that of her young son.
She and her son later moved to Washington DC where she built a profitable business making dresses for the most elite patronage. Her career culminated when she became the seamstress to none other than Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady of the United States.
It was not only her career that soared, but also her personal life. She and Mrs. Lincoln became fast friends and remained so for most of their lives. Keckley was known to be the only woman who could handle Mrs. Lincoln’s erratic moods. She was a confidante to her and the whole family.
It is exciting to feature this important woman in African-American history in our play. She was a pioneer for her race and her gender, breaking down every barrier known to her. She is remembered for her grace and fortitude, meekness and strength, and her ability to answer tragedy and hardship with courage and endurance. Be sure to catch this incredible portrayal, and see how she “puts her hands to use.”
A Civil War Christmas by Paula Vogel runs Dec 14, 15, & 16 at First Baptist Church of Downey at 7pm. 8348 E. Third St., Downey, Ca 90240. Tickets are free. Visit www.fbcdowney.org or call (562) 923-1261.