The Burwell School brings history to life during their semi-annual play, “Behind The Scenes.” 

The performance explores an imagined 1870 conversation between Elizabeth Hobbes Keckly and her former mistress, Anna Burwell, as Keckly returns to confront the Burwells in the home in which she served as a slave for 7 years as a young girl. 

This year, the Burwell School has held a host of events in celebration of the bicentennial of Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave in the Burwell household who, upon gaining freedom, established herself as a dressmaker in Washington D.C. and eventually became the “modiste” and closest confidante to First Lady Mary Lincoln. 

In 1868, Keckly published her memoir titled “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House,” detailing the private life of the White House. 

Keckly was in bondage to the Burwell family name for 30 years, loaned to Rev. Robert Burwell and his wife Anna Burwell for seven years. During this time, the Burwell family operated a girls school out of their home to supplement Robert’s income as a Presbyterian Minister. The school offered a rigorous 4-year curriculum for girls 5th grade to mid-high school and was renowned across the state. 

There, Keckly was often beaten by Robert and a neighbor at the request of Anna to “quell her rebellious spirit.” 

When Keckly became pregnant by a married white neighbor, Alexander Kirkland, after he forced her into a sexual relationship, the Burwells made no intervention. 

Keckly gave birth to a child and moved to Virginia to be in the household of Robert’s sister, Anne Garland and her husband Hugh. Under better treatment in the Garland household, she was their dressmaker and helped raise their children, whom she held a lasting affection. Moving with them to St. Louis, Missouri in 1847, Keckly was emancipated in 1855 with help from a $1,200 loan from her dressmaking clients in St. Louis, Missouri. 

In the play, a conversation between Keckly and Anna unfolds as Keckly returns to the house to retrieve a cape and confront their troubled past. 

“The meeting never happened -- but what if it had?” the Burwell School questions in their online event page. 

“Behind the Scenes,” a play written by Maureen Quilligan and Michael Malone and directed by Francesca Talenti, will bring this confrontation to life, moving around the property for each new scene. 

As Keckly and Anna reunite, their younger selves also appear on the scene. 

The play features four actresses who play the young and adult versions of the two characters: Hillsborough resident Jane Holding plays older Anna Burwell; Lilly Nelson, younger Anna Burwell; Brenda Stephens, older Elizabeth Keckly; and Sara Stephens, the younger Keckly. 

Beginning on the front lawn of the historic Burwell School, scenes are held throughout the ground level of the Burwell School, including the north parlour to the dining room. 

Costumes have been updated by a trio consisting of Carlisle and Linny Vintage Jewelry owner Lindsley Bowen, local seamstress Karen DeSombre (who sewed the replica dress from Keckly displayed in the Burwell School), and a local resident who donated fabric. 

This year, the play will have six showings rather than four. The remaining four will be on Saturday and Sunday, October 20 and 21, with performances at 3 and 5 p.m. 

The Burwell School notes that adult topics are addressed and that the play is for mature audiences. 

The one-hour performances are limited to 35 people per showing. As the play moves about the property, there may be brief periods when you will need to stand. Performances will take place rain or shine. 

Tickets are $20. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit