The Big Read Blog (Archive)

In the Community: Attleboro Public Library

Attleboro, Massachusetts

Stephanie Jackson as Elizabeth Keckly. Photo courtesy of the East Haddam Stage Company

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer describes the 19th century from the carefree perspective of a young boy. On September 24, the Attleboro Public Library will explore an entirely different facet of Mark Twain?s era when it hosts a performance of They Called Me Lizzy: From Slavery to the White House, an original production by the East Haddam Stage Company. The show tells the true story of Elizabeth Keckly, a slave who bought her freedom and went on to become a dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln. Performed in conjunction with the library?s Big Read selection, Tom Sawyer, the play will take place at the Attleboro Arts Museum at 2 p.m. We spoke via email with Stephanie Jackson, the star of the show, who told us about the intersection of literature and theater, the similarities between Lizzy and Tom, and what single book changed her life.

NEA: The Big Read focuses on reading; your work obviously centers on performance. How do you view the overlap between literature and theater?

STEPHANIE JACKSON: I believe theater is the expressed imagination of literature. It gives an audience a visual picture of literary works in a very unique and special way. I think theater has the power to draw people in and allows them to have a lasting mental and emotional experience outside of their own time alone with a book; to share a purely human connection within the world created by a theatrical performance.

NEA: Why do you think this is an important work to present to audiences?

JACKSON: The life of Elizabeth Keckly is truly the story of the American dream. It?s important to remind ourselves of individuals who faced many challenges and yet desired their independence and ability to live out their own dreams. Mrs. Keckly is also an American hero, a woman born into slavery but not defined by it. For the many challenges we face in our society today, it?s important to be reminded that there were other people who came before us, and faced much more difficult circumstances than we do, yet they persevered.

NEA: Do you identify at all with the main character, Elizabeth Keckly?

JACKSON: Yes I do. As an African-American woman, I have faced many challenges to create my own personal freedom and success. Elizabeth Keckly has motivated me to be more passionate and to never give up on my dreams.

NEA: What do you hope audiences come away with from their experience of They Called Me Lizzy?

JACKSON: I hope they connect with the shared experience of pain, success, resilience, and perseverance that is common to all of us. Elizabeth Keckly?s life story is inspiring and uniquely connected to our American history in a way that should never be forgotten. I hope the audience is motivated to know more about her, and the many other African Americans who emancipated themselves before the Emancipation Proclamation.

NEA: They Called Me Lizzy is being presented in conjunction with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. What similarities do you see between the two works?

JACKSON: I think the character Tom Sawyer shared a desire for exploits, much like Elizabeth Keckly. Tom?s experiences allow him to learn and develop some maturity and Elizabeth?s experiences allowed her to carve out a life of independence, entrepreneurship, and sophistication. She was said to be a woman of great grace, moving among the very elite in Washington, DC.

NEA: What book changed your life?

JACKSON: Sula by Toni Morrison. It is the most beautifully earnest story I have ever read. It deals with many social and racial issues in a very quiet, yet exposed way, pulling in opposite perspectives to create a singular human tale. It inspired me to live an honest life, without apology. And it is also the reason I want to share the stories of African-American women through the art form of theater.

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