‘They lived and died as sisters’: Play showcases lives of Black, white women in 19th-century Ridgefield
RIDGEFIELD — Two women, one white and and one Black, shared a lifelong friendship while running a hotel in Ridgefield during Civil War era.
And two other women, one white and one Black, collaborated on bringing their story to life for 21st-century audiences, as unresolved issues of race, economics and privilege continue to inspire debate across the country.
“Sisters” is a play about Anna Marie Resseguie and Phillis DuBois, who ran the Resseguie Hotel in what is now the Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center on Main Street. The play was written by Joanne Hudson, a former Ridgefielder who now lives in Redding, and Royal Shiree, who lives in Lynchburg, Va.
“The two women never married and lived together until the end of their lives and are buried together in the cemetery at the end of Main Street,” Hudson said. “I wondered about that relationship. With one woman born white to a privileged family, taking singing and painting lessons; and one woman, a free Black woman of standing, but who had an entirely different set of rights available to her and an entirely different experience in the world.”
To write their story, Hudson said she needed the input of a Black woman writer, so she sought out a collaborator.
“As a joint project, there were moments of discomfort,” Shiree said, “and Joanne recognized that we should be honest and acknowledge our authentic selves and reactions. I needed to give myself permission to feel whatever I was going to feel and I felt my history. Again.”
“Sisters” will be performed live before a small audience at the Keeler Tavern Museum and will also be livestreamed on Aug. 30, at 3 p.m. Tickets are $40 for the limited live performance and $30 for the livestreaming. Ticket information is available at keelertavernmuseum.org/events/.
“At the Keeler Tavern Museum, we’re committed to speaking truth to the history that happened here,” said Hildegard Grob, executive director of the Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center. “There is Black history here that has never been included — it was interpreted through a white lens. We interpret history truthfully and authentically.”
A primary source for the play is the diary Resseguie kept for 13 years — from 1851 to 1867, when she was age 22 to age 35. The play covers a longer time, the years from 1830, when DuBois entered the household, to 1865, the year the Civil War ended.
DuBois had come into the family as a servant when she was about 8 years old and Anna Marie was an infant. They spent the rest of their lives together.
When DuBois died in 1905, Resseguie sold the inn and moved to a rooming house in the building that currently houses Books on the Common. She died in 1913. Both are buried in Scott’s Cemetery off North Salem Road, together with her parents Abijah Resseguie and Anna Keeler Resseguie.
Since little is known about Dubois’ beginnings, Shiree said she took artistic liberties and created her past to mirror the stories of ensalved women.
“Most gratifying is demonstrating evolution from an uneducated enslaved young girl to a wise and educated Black woman,” Shiree said. “I feel there is a reversal of social influence reflecting Phillis as the most dominant in Anna Marie’s life and existence. During periods of social unrest and social unjust, the relationship remained. Respect remained. Cooperation remained. The Confederacy did not move or remove that mountain. They were professionally and personally successful. There was love. They lived and died as sisters. That’s what we can learn.”
The playwrights used sources beyond the Ressiguie diary, such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Ressiguie had read the serialized version of the novel, Hudson said, and was one of the first in Ridgefield to own the novel and hosted readings of it.
Though it has been nearly 150 years since Ressiguie started writing in her diary, the playwrights said the topic of race can still be a difficult issue to confront.
“We began writing the play in January of 2017 when it felt like the country was about to explode into another Civil War,” Hudson said. “It still feels this way, although we’ve become more accustomed to it. ... Royal and I sought to have a conversation about race and specifically the relationships of white and Black women through these two characters. It is a difficult conversation to have and Phillis and Anna Marie helped us to begin it.”
“ ‘Sisters’ stirred my spirit,” Shiree said. “In reality, none of us could have gotten here by ourselves. From 1619, to Ridgefield, Connecticut; Anna Marie and Phillis, to the Civil War; Civil Rights, and Black Lives Matter in 2020. They were never moments. They are movements. But we have to have uncomfortable conversations until this will no longer be a conversation.”
Hudson said she found historical similarities between the time of Resseguie and DuBois, and the present.
“There are some interesting historical similarities,” she said. “There was a group of abolitionists called the ‘Wide Awakes’ who marched down Main Street here in Ridgefield, and of course we have ‘woke’ people now marching for Black Lives. This moment in time feels very potent and I am hopeful of change as Anna Marie and Phillis were back then.”
Shiree added, “I hope people realize we need more Phillises and Anna Maries. If we pay attention, history can teach us.”