This year's Piccolo Spoleto Festival is marked by a fascination with figures of the Civil War and the decades following. Over the coming week, on various stages around Charleston, characters including Jefferson Davis and Harriet Tubman are being brought to life in historical monodramas by actors who, if they are to succeed, must be as steeped in history as they are in the art of acting. There's something special about the one-person show; one could easily make the claim that in no other format is the potential for deep character study as great. When that character is a historical figure, there is the added responsibility not only of factual accuracy, but of grasping slipperier truths of essence, of personality, that are at best only hinted at in history books.
When it comes to subjects for historical one-woman plays, one could do much worse than Laura Keene, actor and theater manageress who was performing at Ford's Theatre the night President Lincoln was shot. Though this is probably the primary thing that Keene is remembered for nowadays — when she is remembered at all — as In Haste, Laura Keene makes clear, it is far from the most interesting thing about her. As a British woman in 1850s and '60s America, Keene acted in touring and theater companies, leased and managed her own theaters in several large cities, and adapted, produced, and starred in what was at the time the longest-running play on either side of the Atlantic. A sharp businesswoman, Keene traveled to the wild environs of gold rush California (where she met John Wilkes Booth's brother, Edwin Booth) and even Australia to offer her dramatic services to men who were starved for entertainment and eager to pay for it. She achieved a level of independence and success that was unheard of for a woman not only in her own time, but for decades after.
In Haste, Laura Keene, explains all of this in an imagined interview between Keene, who is backstage in what serves as both her dressing room and office, and a young aspiring writer named Annabelle, who does not appear on stage. Keene is vividly brought to life by Tamara Johnson, a member of the Virginia Shakespeare Festival and award-winning film and stage actress. Johnson's first entrance as the self-made actress and manageress is one of the best we've seen in years: in a flurry of authoritative efficiency, Laura Keene enters her dressing room while calling directions to an unseen stagehand and surveying postings on the bulletin board. It is an in media res opening executed to perfection, as it both sparks our attention and gives us Laura Keene as an immediate and fully realized character.
After this entrance, there are an odd couple of minutes in which Keene writes a letter to one of her less talented actors, and finds an insulting letter describing her superstitious nature, including her recounting of a dream she had before Lincoln was killed. These details do little to flesh out Keene's character and seem disconnected from what is to follow. The show begins to pick up steam when the unseen Annabelle enters and Keene starts telling her life story. Though there are a few moments that smack too much of a history lesson, such as when she tells Annabelle of what things were like for women just ten years ago, or when she describes the trial she brought against a theater that produced her play without her permission, "establishing dramatic copyright law," for the most part Keene's experiences are so surprising, and Johnson's portrayal so complete, that we are swept along in the story as we imagine Annabelle must be.
Though many audience members are surely drawn to the show for the Lincoln assassination, it is only in the performance's last third or so that the story of that night comes out. In a moving, extended monologue, Johnson as Keene describes the assassination from its plotting to its execution, including her experience in the president's box when she cradled the dying Lincoln's head in her lap. Snippets from that blood-stained dress, she tells us, became a sought-after souvenir for the craven masses, who fueled a trade in fakes and phonies that Keene would from time to time run across during her touring.
This is just one of the many small stories that, as the best history teachers know, can turn history from words on a page (or spoken, as the case may be) into a living experience. And thanks to Johnson's consummate acting, that's what an evening with Ms. Laura Keene is.