Ridgefield museum wins prestigious award for educational initiative

RIDGEFIELD — The Keeler Tavern Museum & History Center has been awarded the prestigious 2021 Award of Merit from the Connecticut League of History Organizations (CLHO) for its multi-program project initiative, SISTERS.

The CLHO committee “was impressed with this effort to grapple with difficult history head on,” according to executive director Amrys Williams. “By bringing thorny issues around race, gender and enslavement to life through theater and connecting the play to a series of educational activities and public conversations, the ‘SISTERS’ project offers a model of the sort of innovative work that small organizations in Connecticut can do.”

The SISTERS initiative includes component public and school programs based on the original play of the same name. At the heart of “Sisters” is the story of two women — Anna Resseguie, a white woman, and Phillis DuBois, a Black woman, who lived at the Resseguie Hotel (the present site of the museum) in the mid-to-late 19th century.

The play explores the complicated dynamics of the women’s relationship and was co-written by Royal Shirée, who is Black, and Joanne Hudson, who is white. It was informed by historical records from the museum’s archives and the lived experiences and imaginations of its playwrights. The play was virtually staged for school and public audiences in 2020 and was accompanied by programming and lessons for students and a community talkback for the public.

Shirée emphasized the importance of encouraging present-day reckoning with and discussion of historical injustices. “In co-authoring ‘Sisters,’ I appreciate the opportunity to un-silence a bit of history to give voice and agency to the unaccredited many,” she said. “I'm honored that in some way I helped to spur thought and conversation — hopefully until the need to do so does not exist.”

Shirée’s coauthor also expressed her appreciation for the collaborative nature of the play and its accompanying programs.“I am filled with love for everyone involved in this project,” Hudson said. “It’s a great honor for SISTERS to be recognized for the intention we envisioned.”

SISTERS’ program components fulfill the museum’s renewed effort to “speak truth to history” by critically examining how Keeler tells its history to ensure that all voices are heard truthfully and completely. This includes the site’s stories at the intersection of race, gender and privilege, such as those told in SISTERS.

Keeler focuses on using the site’s history to reflect upon and contribute to town, state and national identities with the goal of affecting structural change and changing behavior and outcomes for a more just society. Additionally, the school program uses historiography — the study of how the writing of history changes over time — to challenge students to think about how history was interpreted and taught in the 19th century and today.

“We are honored to receive this award, and we want to recognize the many people who helped make this project possible,” said Keeler’s executive director Hilde Grob. “Combining history and theater, SISTERS is exceptional because it harnesses the power of the humanities to create honest, open and critical engagement with the past, including difficult history, to provide context for the present.”

Keeler will receive the Award of Merit at CLHO’s Annual Business Meeting on April 20. To book the award-winning school program of SISTERS, contact the museum at education@keelertavernmuseum.org. Future productions of SISTERS’ public program will be announced at keelertavernmuseum.org/events and on social media.