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Reenactors turn history into theater across D.C. area

By Peter Marks
Sunday, May 30, 2010; E01

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.

"My friends and classmates are tired of waiting for change to come!" says the preternaturally poised Dungee, as she helps us to understand that passive resistance is not so passive. Along with the actress's compelling presence, it is the passionate pitch of the songs -- "I'm on my way to freedom land," we sing -- and the stark power of that counter that elevate "Join the Student Sit-Ins" above the level of by-the-book instruction.

'Investigation: Detective McDevitt'

President Lincoln has been shot, and James McDevitt, a D.C. police detective, is on the case. So, apparently, are we. For nearly two hours, we trail Mike Feldsher, one of the three actors who rotate in the role of the historical cop, as he dissects the witness statements and discloses the names of possible participants in the assassination and the apparently connected attempt on the life of Secretary of State William Seward.

The Ford's Theatre walking tour, which covers a 1.7-mile circuit of downtown, is a more exposition-dependent bit of theater than some of the other events. Written by Richard Hellesen and directed by Mark Ramont -- yes, it's that meticulously steered -- the tour doesn't hinge quite so heavily on the personality of the main character. We get to know much more about the shadowy conspirators, the Booths and Spanglers and Surratts, than we do about McDevitt.

Still, in a bowler hat and pinstripe pants smudged with dirt in the way a close-to-the-ground gumshoe's clothing might be, the nattily formal Feldsher makes this far more than a "there, on your left" kind of excursion. I'm not an assassination buff, so by the time we are delving into the motives and whereabouts of suspects 7 and 8, I'm needily eyeing one of the many cappuccino places we pass on the way to our final destination, Lafayette Square.

And yet, the incidental factoids dropped along the way kept me going. Who knew Lincoln's son Tad learned of his father's shooting while attending a version of "Aladdin" at the National Theatre?

'One Destiny'

Young'uns in T-shirts started erupting in yawns about halfway through the 35-minute "One Destiny," the most conventionally theatrical of the pieces I saw. And I really couldn't blame them. The play at Ford's Theatre, which runs frequently in June, once in July and then restarts in October, is a dry account of the events leading up to the Lincoln assassination as seen through the eyes of theater co-owner Harry Ford and one of his actors, Harry Hawk.

Stephen F. Schmidt, who portrays Ford, and Michael Bunce, who's Hawk, are required to pull costumes out of a trunk and, assuming the identities of various people who were there, report on what happened April 14, 1865. (Snippets of "Our American Cousin," the hoary comedy that was playing that evening, are also dramatized.) But it isn't until Schmidt and Bunce get to the moment of the shooting that the drama acquires any urgency.

The presentation's most vivid moments occur, in fact, after the one-act play is over, and the actors open it up to a Q and A with the audience. Schmidt, in particular, displays an impressive knowledge of the assassination. If ever the theater were to institute a Lincoln game show, he'd make a worthy first contestant.

'A Free Black Woman: Elizabeth Keckly'

It struck me, as we followed Drakes's Keckly down 13th Street and then along Pennsylvania Avenue, how difficult it must be, trying to conjure a woman and her 19th-century Washington, when so little of the architecture of her world remains. Here, after all, was Drakes in period costume, marching us past one modern edifice after another, and pointing out historic churches in the slim niches between 20th-century office and apartment buildings.

And yet, she did it, by the sheer force of personality and the dexterity of the storytelling. (Her script is by Jennifer L. Nelson; the performance is directed by Patrick Torres.) Certainly, Keckly's biography is extraordinary: You spend a good portion of your time with Drakes, trying to imagine what it would have been like to have emerged from slavery, established a notable business and become a confidant to a first lady.

In the end, the buoyant results are more than an engaging chapter of history, working its magic. Just as important is the alchemy of inspired casting. That, any director will tell you, is a sure path to good theater -- no matter where it takes place.

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