Yorktown residents Carla Lynne Hall and Jim Keyes have been writing and performing music together since 2016. They are not only business partners but partners in life. Married in 2019, the two perform under the stage name “Carla and Keyes.” The duo has traveled to area schools, libraries, historic institutions, and other public places to sing and act in original performances that bring American history to life, often with an angle that sheds light on important African-Americans that have contributed to our country’s story.
Keyes had been doing historic performances for over 20 years before he met Hall. Leading music workshops dressed in Colonial clothes, he still continues his presentations of ballads, dance tunes and game songs on reproduction instruments from the time, including baroque guitar, mandolin, recorder, fife, and mountain dulcimer.
“When Carla and I got together, we decided we should make what I do a ‘family business’ so we put our heads together to create some new programming in 2020,” says Keyes. “Interestingly my slow months were February and March, which happen to be Black History Month and Women’s History Month. Carla is a black woman so it was a wonderful addition.”
“I got to spend a lot of time listening to the historic stories that Jim told and it made me want to look for ones that I wanted to tell,” says Hall. As a young black woman, Hall had heard the story of Madam C.J. Walker, read her biography, and recently she went with Jim to visit Walker’s house in Irvington. The first black woman millionaire in America, Walker made her fortune from creating her own homemade line of hair care products for black women.
After researching this famous black entrepreneur, Hall and Keyes created an original play called “An Afternoon with Madam C.J. Walker, An American Success Story.” Hall says they discovered that Walker’s mansion was named Villa Lewaro by an Italian opera singer named Enrico Caruso. “We came up with a storyline about Enrico coming to visit Walker’s daughter. While waiting for her daughter to arrive, Walker gets to tell her story,” says Hall. “Since Enrico is a foreigner, we also wove in information about slavery in America.”
Another program they’ve recently created is “Ona’s Interview: The True Story of George Washington’s Runaway Slave.” “Ona Judge was self-emancipated when she was 19 years old during George Washington’s second term as president, and the Washingtons spent the rest of their lives looking for her,” says Keyes. In 1845, Judge did an interview for an abolitionist newspaper with the Reverend T.H. Adams, the first reporter to interview the 70-year-old escaped slave. Drawing from primary sources, Hall and Keyes reenact their interpretation of the interview in their show.
“We are getting to tell the stories that rarely get told,” says Hall. “When you are talking about African-Americans or enslaved Africans, there are very few primary documents that can be found. We pride ourselves in doing the best research that we can and then coming up with a storyline around that. It’s important for us to bring these stories to light.”
Even working with traditional stories and legends, Hall and Keyes have been making inroads with their unique voices. For example, Keyes has scored and played music for storyteller Jonathan Kruk during Kruk’s annual fall performances of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at Sunnyside in Irvington. (Keyes has also been the daytime storyteller for “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow).
While “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” focuses on the headless horseman, Hall and Keyes recently created a totally new program that sheds light on a different Colonial tale taking place in the church’s graveyard. With an original score performed by Keyes, Hall performs a one woman show called “Hulda the Witch: The Other Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The presentation tells the story of Hulda of Bohemia, a woman who was originally shunned in Sleepy Hollow for being a witch but later became a Revolutionary War hero.
Hulda’s gravestone resides in the Old Dutch Church graveyard, and was a source of inspiration for Hall, who she spent a lot of time exploring Hulda’s story. “Hulda was a heroine and sharpshooter who is credited with keeping the British away from the Sleepy Hollow militia; she saved lives while losing her own life,” says Hall.
With the upcoming semi-quincentennial of the American Revolution, “Carla and Keyes” were commissioned by the organization Yorktown 250 to create “This Man’s a Spy.” They presented the musical story at the Whippoorwill Theatre at the North Castle Library in Armonk on Sunday, November 13. Keyes says, “We perform in costume and engage the audience in an interactive discussion about two of the American Revolution’s most intriguing characters, British Major John André and American traitor Benedict Arnold.” (The musical is also part of the programming Hall and Keyes offer to interested schools and other organizations.)
While deciding how to promote “This Man’s A Spy!,” Hall and Keyes came up with the idea this past September to host a podcast and YouTube video series called “The History Twins.” “We have such creative lives and imaginations, and we thought it would be great to come up with a platform to share some of the adventures Jim and I get to go on,” says Hall.
More info at carlaandkeyes.com.
Laura Joseph Mogil is a freelance writer residing in Briarcliff Manor.