Reenactors turn history into theater across D.C. area

History in Washington is one long, lavish production and even casual visitors to this town can revel in the drama of it all, thanks to the efforts of museums, landmarks and historic theaters to bring the past to life.
By Peter Marks
Sunday, May 30, 2010

When you go looking for theater in Washington's rich historical landscape, it pays to wear comfortable shoes. I'm learning this valuable lesson on a sunny spring morning as I trudge up 12th Street NW behind an exuberant young woman in a crisp hoop skirt, lace gloves and cotton blouse. With the help of an amplifier attached to her waist, she regales me and 30 other intrepid sorts with stories of the life she led here before the roads were paved and war raged just beyond the city limits.

"Picture the streets as they were, when I first came," she tells us at one point, as tour buses and taxis rumble by. In front of an old building a few blocks west of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, she stops to talk about her first residence in the District as a free woman, a discourse prompting her listeners to train shiny objects on her that produce little flashes.

"Keep them coming," she says, beaming. "I'm not camera-shy."

Somehow, amid the din of the modern metropolis -- and the amused stares of strollers walking toward us -- the actress Danielle Drakes is able to securely sustain the illusion that she is Elizabeth Keckly: dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln and a woman born into slavery who had the mettle to purchase freedom for herself and her son. The occasion for this excursion is a 1 1/2 -mile walking tour, designed and operated by Ford's Theatre, called "A Free Black Woman: Elizabeth Keckly." And though her stage is the sidewalk and her audience more likely to sport sightseeing maps than playbills, tourists from here, there or anywhere should make no mistake: This was a real person, and this is a real performance.

In a city where history and the stage have collided so tumultuously -- by virtue of that convergence, isn't Ford's the most notorious playhouse in the world? -- it's fitting that Washington is the repository not only of some important theater history, but also of some estimable contemporary examples of History Theater. At famous landmarks and even museums, the effort to invigorate the understanding of the past has led to imaginative injections of performance into otherwise static exhibitions and fact-spewing guided tours.

This approach has been applied in other cradles of history -- notably, in the restored surroundings of Colonial Williamsburg. But weaving evocations of the American past into the bustle of a working city is another sort of challenge. To get a sense of how successfully it is achieved, I set out to sample a cross-section of the region's textbooks-in-motion.

'Meet Lady Washington'

In a cozy cottage on the estate of George Washington, a rosy-cheeked woman wearing a bonnet and clutching a hanky sits on a platform, surrounded by period baubles: cameos and portraits, a small vanity. But the most evocative presence is the lady herself. The benevolent spirit of Martha Washington is channeled with exquisite savoir-faire by Mary Wiseman, who honed her skills at "character interpretation" in 35 years at Williamsburg and now is regularly ensconced as Lady Washington at Mount Vernon.

"You are at the home of farmer Washington," she tells us, before asking for the home towns of the T-shirt-and-shorts crowd that casually wanders in. "We're from North Dakota!" a woman calls out from the back. "I'm not certain where that is," Lady Washington replies. "Although I know the general is very interested in western expansion."

Her conversation is unscripted, and yet this is an homage of depth and full-bore theatricality. It's tantamount to an interactive one-woman show, and what you learn about this kind of historical performance is that a vibrant personality goes a long way toward fulfilling the expectations of the uninitiated.

Visiting 6- and 7-year-olds perch themselves close to this wholly welcoming figure, to learn how properly to bow. Lady Washington doesn't merely recite dates. "Civility: Think of the other person first," she says in soothing tones.

'Join the Student Sit-Ins'

The set could not be any more stirring. On the second floor of the National Museum of American History resides the lunch counter from the Woolworth's in Greensboro, N.C., where, in a pivotal event of the civil rights movement, four black college students staged a sit-in on Feb. 1, 1960, in a section reserved for whites. At this spot, several times a week, the institution sets up benches and stages a half-hour play by Christopher Wilson, in which an activist of the time briefs potential recruits in the basics of nonviolent resistance.

We museumgoers are the rookies, repeating the slogans and singing the civil rights songs taught to us by Azania Dungee, the young actress who plays Diane Lawson, a composite of several actual protesters. (S. Xavier Carnegie plays the trainer at other performances.) To replicate the pressure and intimidation the four men experienced, four audience members are recruited to portray them as the rest of us menacingly pack ourselves around them.

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