Meanwhile, removed from the crowd, I notice a person in period costume who is not cheering. He looks subdued, doubtful, conflicted. He is black. The speaker is talking about the necessity of fighting for one’s freedom.
That’s right, I’m in Colonial Williamsburg, and it’s making me think. Revolutionary.
Since the 1930s, when the project opened to the public, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has employed tour guides in 18th-century costumes. They were originally all female and called “hostesses”; the most important requirement, according to the project’s founder, the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin, was that they be Southern.
By 1940, the foundation was employing African Americans to represent slaves. “Archaically clad slaveys,” as a Washington Post travel article called them, dressed the part but did not pretend to be colonial-era persons. Through the ’50s, the costumed employees lived in segregated dorms, and black visitors had only one designated day a week to tour the historic area. In the ’60s, critics began to complain about Williamsburg’s emphasis on rich white men, noting as late as 1976 the “almost total absence of any reference to slavery,” in one visitor’s words. Historian Anders Greenspan refers to this period as Williamsburg’s transition from monument to educational institution. In 1979, Colonial Williamsburg hired three black interpreters, including Rex Ellis, who went on to develop the African American studies program at Colonial Williamsburg and today is director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Ellis told the Daily Press in 2009 that, at first, his family thought that pretending to be a slave was the worst thing he could do, given his education and opportunities.
As our culture learns more and thinks differently about the past, Williamsburg has grown with us, struggling, as it must, to follow both historical accuracy and financial viability. Bill Weldon, the foundation’s manager of public history development, says the mission is “that people be provoked to think about citizenship.” Since 2006, that enterprise has taken a turn for the theatrical, with 40 actor-interpreters representing real historical people from the town, with names and identifying details discovered the same way any historian discovers them. The characters participate in scripted scenes, extended monologues and extemporaneous conversation with visitors. This street-theater reimagining of Williamsburg is called Revolutionary City.
From a theater nerd’s perspective, which I just happen to have, this is terribly exciting. Street theater and educational plays have a pretty bad rap of late. But there’s street theater three hours south of Washington that gets more than a million visitors a year — painfully cool, avant-garde street theater that wants to change the minds of families on vacation and middle-schoolers on field trips. Tourists can avoid the darker parts of Colonial Williamsburg if they wish — or they can seek it out.
“We never found anything we aren’t willing to portray,” Weldon says. “We’d try to find a way to portray tar -and feathering, if it had happened.” It nearly does, in one scene. Revolutionary City has staged execution by firing squad — behind a wall — and scenes with slaveholders and enslaved characters, as well as scenes of a town occupied by a foreign power.
“If you are responsible and if you portray things responsibly and realistically, it’s the best teaching method,” Weldon says of the interactive, environmental street theater. “Public history, as opposed to academic.” The same year that Revolutionary City debuted, Mount Vernon unveiled its $5 million, 20-minute action-adventure movie starring a dashing young George Washington in the French and Indian War. History has gone cutting-edge.
Which makes the job of actor-interpreter at Revolutionary City a very interesting one indeed. Full-time, year-round, non-union acting gigs that pay a living wage (with benefits!) are thin on the ground already, but add the research and interactivity, and you’ve got financial stability, creativity, and a clear artistic and intellectual mission — facets that only a tiny, lucky fraction will find in New York or Los Angeles.
I’d been told to come to the 9 a.m. briefing/strategy session in the blacksmith’s house to meet the actor-interpreters during a bit of their downtime. The rebuilt historic houses along Duke of Gloucester Street are set up as colonial shops and private residences. Not seeing anyone coming or going, I assume I have the wrong address, but Jim Bradley, communications manager for Colonial Williamsburg, finds me and takes me around the back.
“When you live in a period house,” he tells me, “you don’t ever answer the front door. Come and go by the back doors. They’re usually outside of the public eye.” Around the back is the excavation of the next historical site being built, a half-dug-up smithy. Actors are arriving in costume from the parking lot — a mix of men and women, young and middle-aged, black and white. There’s a half-colonial feel to all of it, with ponytailed wigs still in the hairnets they’re stored in to protect the braids. A gentleman is using a steam iron on a drawstring bag. Suzie Allen is reading out the list of who will play what, when and where. There’s a coffeepot and a fridge. This is a break room; it’s 18th century only on the outside.
“Anyone feel the need to rehearse?” Allen asks the room. There are about 20 actors here, and they are generally avoiding modern figures of speech, though I do hear one actor call another “Captain Queernabs,” which I figure must be a reference to something on YouTube.
Nobody feels the need to rehearse.
What is it like to interact with an audience as an 18th-century man? Robert Weathers, the Benedict Arnold champion, answers. “The number one mistake you can make is pointing out how [the visitors] are different from you. It opens you up to questions about the microphone.” The actors wear wireless mics, with a battery pack that tucks into their waistbands or under their skirts.
Colonial Williamsburg gives its actor-interpreters pamphlets about how to sound 18th-century. Say “above stairs” or “below stairs.” Terms like “hussy,” “slut” and “to make love” weren’t particularly rude. The actors tend to favor the insults. Bill Rose, one of the actor-interpreters, has an 1812 “Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” and will write five archaic words for the day and their definitions. It turns out “Captain Queernabs” is a shabby gentleman.
The actor-interpreters call me out for saying a cobbler makes shoes. (He only repairs them. It is a touchy subject.) They show me their handy chart, the “lowerarchy of humor,” on which they rate each others’ bad jokes on a low-threshold continuum from Yakov Smirnoff to Carlos Mencia. And they tell me about the two-hour discussion they had the other day about racism — whether colonial racism was necessarily about inherent racial inequality or whether it was about slaves being a “conquered people.” “Is racism today the same as it was then?” asks Art Johnson from the back of the room. He seems to want to rekindle the conversation, but this morning is too boisterous and slaphappy for it to catch hold.
There are also non-employee, non-volunteer folk who will make their own costumes and walk the streets, occasionally answering questions or giving unofficial talks. “We can’t vouch for everyone in a pointy hat,” Weathers says.
Each actor-interpreter does individual research during the park’s off period in January and February. Topics include colonial-era dance, boxing or cosmetics. “It reflects our interests,” says actor-interpreter Deirdre Jones. “And it benefits our interpretation. We can make these people more human.” And sometimes there are the tourists who object. “People tell me [as Kate, a slave], you can’t read!” Jones says. “And I say, there’s evidence that she could.” Kate is a real historical woman owned by a Mr. Trebell, who sent slaves to the Bray school, where Ann Wager taught them from the Bible. One of Jones’s slave characters gives tours of the Governor’s Palace — and because she would not be talkative with free Williamsburgers, the people taking the tour are cast as outsider slaves, sent to help set up a party.
There’s a scene in which Weathers has Eddie Menzies, playing a slave, in leather cuffs. “We walk down the street, and I explain he’s a runaway slave,” Weathers says. “Everyone thinks — runaway slave, good! People will try to free me,” says Menzies. “Robert will say I might get loose and hurt someone. One [tourist] said, ‘You wouldn’t hurt me!’ And I took it a step further: ‘If killing you meant getting my freedom, I’d kill you and your whole family.’ ”
For me, the only uncomfortable part of the whole experience is interacting with an actor pretending to be a slave.
Art Johnson, 49, realizes he has a hurdle to overcome. “You make the visitors feel comfortable so they can ask a question,” he says, eating a sandwich in the break room. Johnson sees himself more as an interpreter than an actor. He takes his historical knowledge and research and puts it in terms the visitor will understand. Which at times is more than people want to do.
“People will walk away, say they don’t want to hear it. People sit down in awe.” At another Williamsburg site, he says, “a lady I saw went down on her knees and cried, looking at the slave quarters.
“I’m in a city that at its height was over 50 percent black,” Johnson says. “It’s not always represented. It’s like taking someone to Georgetown and saying, ‘This is America.’ ”
Thomas Jefferson is onstage in front of a packed audience in the Hennage Auditorium in the mental hospital museum, showing off his “laptop.” It’s a portable desk he invented. The crowd eats it up. He tells us why the Declaration changed from one draft to the next. Originally, he held these truths to be sacred and inviolable, but he revised them in order to ground equality in human logic rather than in religious terms. Inevitably, at question-and-answer time, someone asks about his rumored sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, whom he owned.
“I would go to the ends of the earth to defend your right to say what you wish,” Jefferson says, “and my right not to answer.” Big laughs. . He stays afterward for 10 or 15 minutes, shaking hands and posing for pictures.
Bill Barker has been Thomas Jefferson for 27 years, originally at Independence Hall but here at Williamsburg for the past 17 years. He had been a history major but was pursuing theater in New York and Washington when a friend of his who played William Penn in Philadelphia asked if anyone had ever told him he looked like Thomas Jefferson.
Spend an hour with Bill Barker, and he’ll name-check Tacitus and Thucydides, drop paragraph-long quotations of Jefferson’s views on health care, and mention the medical experiments Jefferson performed on himself to try to cure his ailments — including attempts to self-catheterize. Barker will argue convincingly why he thinks Jefferson was a Freemason.
Whatever burden comes with wearing the frock coat and the ponytail, Barker embraces it. People expect him to say profound things, and he does. When a little boy asked him to define happiness, he answered with his take on Aristotle’s definition: fulfillment of one’s own capacity. And when a small girl asked what to say to your brother who has gone to war, he told her: “Let him know it’s for your benefit, the nation’s benefit. Help him to understand this is the highest duty.”
Barker has his own theory about the founders’ purpose in creating Colonial Williamsburg.He takes off his microphone and says: “My father, who was drafted into the First World War, said this was [primary donor John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s] gift to the South — after the Civil War, to remind us of when we were all working together, of compromise. It certainly took vision to see what something like this could mean.”
Revolutionary City is where Mr. Jefferson lives, but it’s also where a character named Wil, a slave owned by a tavern-keeper, lives. I meet Wil the first time when I come upon him telling a tourist family that the revolutionaries were talking only of their own freedom, not freedom for everyone. As I walked by, Wil straightened up, advised the family that you never know who is listening, and bowed to me, a white woman in jeans, telling me he “didn’t mean no trouble,” and acting worried about what my response would be. I was startled to suddenly be cast in the role of oppressor. Wil was afraid of me.
I responded with something awkward and modern, like, “No, you’re fine,” and I tried to bow back. I felt the need to make a joke. “I’m one of the nice ones!” Nothing worked; nothing improved the situation of me against them. At that point, it didn’t matter what I did.
And that is when everything changed.
It didn’t matter at all that I was one of the nice ones. It didn’t matter what I said. What mattered to Wil was my white skin. It ruptured any sort of connection we could have. Somehow — it seems ridiculous now — I had imagined that if I had lived here in the 1700s, being nice, being me, having the conviction that slavery was wrong would make a friendship with someone like Wil possible.
I tracked Wil down the next day looking for catharsis. He stayed in his character, and left me in the one he’d designated for me the previous day. He was just as serious. He made me sit in the shade while he sat in the sun. He asked if I had brought a slave, and how a woman had traveled from Washington on her own, and if I was afraid, and he asked so plainly and earnestly and directly that I was playing along without realizing it. He told me his wife and son were sold down to North Carolina after a Christmas celebration got out of hand; he showed me scars on his back — real scars, though not particularly lash-like — from the whipping he got when he left his owner without permission to help his uncle die. The uncle had died already when he arrived.
Wil asked me if I thought he should find another wife. He loves his wife still, but isn’t sure he’ll ever see her again, and a man gets lonesome. Nothing I said could comfort Wil. I asked him how much he cost — a hundred pounds — and he told another group of tourists that I would buy him and take him up North. I hadn’t said that. But I suspect a lot of people promise to buy Wil.
The best theater, the best art, will grow a compassion and perspective in you that you didn’t know you lacked. It will show you that you were incomplete and that you have more to learn.
Wil is played by Greg James. If you go to Revolutionary City to meet him, there is nothing you can do for him. But he can do so much for you.
Rachel Manteuffel is an editorial aide for the Editorial page. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.