Abraham Lincoln's White House is the setting for the next play at Arena Stage: "Mary T. & Lizzy K." A world premiere, written and directed by Tazewell Thompson, "Mary T. & Lizzy K." tells the story of the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly.

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly was born a slave in Virginia in 1818 and worked with her mother in the home of a planter and colonel. "Her mom taught her to sew," said Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, who plays Keckly. "So she sewed for the family and for the slaves.

"At one point, when her master moved to St. Louis, the family fell on hard times and Elizabeth wound up supporting the entire family through her earnings as a seamstress."

It was during that period that Keckly came into contact with free blacks. "She asked her master if she could buy freedom for herself and her son and he said it would cost $1,200, which she couldn't afford, of course, since all her earnings went to her master," said Luqmaan-Harris.

'Mary T. & Lizzy K.'
» Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW
» When: Friday through April 28
» Info: $40 to $85; 202-488-3300; arenastage.org

"But her clients raised the money for her and when she was freed, she worked until she could pay all that money back to her clients. Then she and her son moved to Washington, where she began to get prestigious clients with connections -- one of whom offered to introduce her to Mary Todd Lincoln."

Keckly met Mrs. Lincoln on Inauguration Day, 1861 and her position as the first lady's "modiste" meant more than making dresses. Keckly assisted Mrs. Lincoln each day as her personal dresser and assisted in the preparation for official receptions and social events.

"When Mary and Elizabeth were close, they were like sisters," said Luqmaan-Harris. "They were similar in that they were both ahead of their time. They both had visions of what their lives were going to be and were determined to make those visions happen. They were both pretty stubborn women. From what I've read, Elizabeth was one of the few people who could stand up to Mrs. Lincoln.

"Also, during the course of their work relationship, they both lost sons and sharing that grieving process together helped very much to cement their friendship. Elizabeth and Abe Lincoln had a very unique relationship, too. She combed his hair before he went out. She was really part of their family.

"I wanted to play Elizabeth Keckly because I'm drawn to characters who aren't victims of circumstance. She possessed tremendous dignity, self-esteem and talent. She was independent and her clothes, which you can still see today, are breathtaking. In her later years, she went on to become a civic activist."