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"The American Revolution is not a story just for white people."
March 11, 2013 2:47 PM   Subscribe

"We’ve coined a term," said Katrinah Lewis, the actress who typically interprets Lydia. "Post-traumautic slave syndrome." The Washington Post reports on African American actors who interpret the lives of slaves at Colonial Williamsburg.
posted by Snarl Furillo (38 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't think I can imagine this role's difficulty. Not really. The actors who do it must have real guts.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 2:55 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh, this breaks my heart. A horrible job and a higher calling all at once.

This also reminds me of Shtetl Days, a magnificent heartbreaking Harry Turtledove story that describes the lives of actors in a Jewish recreation village in an alt-history where the Nazis won.
posted by Andrhia at 2:56 PM on March 11, 2013 [16 favorites]


I grew up mostly in New England, so field trips were to Revolutionary War and Colonial-era places. I only remember one trip where there were re-enactors, and they were Minutemen. I've never been to a place where re-enactors enact the lives of slaves. I don't know if I could. I can hardly imagine being an actor playing that role the way they do in Colonial Williamsburg.
posted by rtha at 3:08 PM on March 11, 2013


The BackStory podcast recently re-broadcast a show about historical re-creations in America. There's some similar stuff about how visitors treat slave re-enactors, and some equally disturbing stuff about some people who re-enact a lynching in 1940s Georgia. (You can access the individual segments here.)
posted by benito.strauss at 3:11 PM on March 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


As a white person, I'm not sure I'd even be able to play the part of a slave owner. There's just something there that screams: DO NOT DO THIS EVER AGAIN, EVEN IF JUST PRETENDING.
posted by Blue_Villain at 3:11 PM on March 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


Wow. I'm not sure how to feel about this.

Williamsburg is my hometown; in middle school and high school my closest friends were Junior Interpreters and in the Fife and Drum Corp.

On one hand, historical interpretation is a hard, uncomfortable job. Period-appropriate clothing is heavy, and in the summer it is hellishly hot here. You're mostly outside and on your feet all day, and that's not including those roles that involve manual labor.

On the other hand, Williamsburg is a tourist town, with CW at the heart of it, and tons of people make a living with those $13-18 dollars an hour jobs.
posted by tooloudinhere at 3:18 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hubbard’s immersion into this world will be fleeting: She is performing as a slave just twice, on Saturday, through Colonial Williamsburg’s guest-artist program, a recent initiative that uses ascendant Hollywood actors to help reach a younger, more diverse audience.

Not to harsh on this program, but I would be more interested to read about this if it were about a person or persons who had to live with the job for longer than a weekend.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:21 PM on March 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


I am glad they are making the effort. Slavery must be discussed in a frank way.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 3:26 PM on March 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Not to harsh on this program, but I would be more interested to read about this if it were about a person or persons who had to live with the job for longer than a weekend.

I could have sworn that there was a post about this, or maybe a link to such in an earlier post, but danged if I can find it.
posted by rtha at 3:30 PM on March 11, 2013


As a white person, I'm not sure I'd even be able to play the part of a slave owner. There's just something there that screams: DO NOT DO THIS EVER AGAIN, EVEN IF JUST PRETENDING.

In Act One of the This American Life episode "Be Careful Who You Pretend to Be", a historical interpreter at the Connor Prairie Living History Museum discusses what it is like to play a slave owner in its Follow the North Star Program. The program is an interactive experience where museum visitors play the part of slaves escaping to the Underground Railroad. Warning: his descriptions of the re-enactments are pretty brutal and hard to listen to. It is particularly interesting when the interviewer asks him what it is like when some of the program participants are black.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:40 PM on March 11, 2013 [12 favorites]


As a white person, I'm not sure I'd even be able to play the part of a slave owner. There's just something there that screams: DO NOT DO THIS EVER AGAIN, EVEN IF JUST PRETENDING.

While obviously no one is obligated to play a slave-owner in a historical re-enactment, leaving slavery and slave-owners entirely out of your representation of 18th century Virginia is arguably worse. I'm sure it's pretty weird for the white actors in addition to clearly being troubling for the black actors, but the alternative is portraying a false history in which it's deeply unclear why slavery even existed at all if the white folks were against it and/or in which it starts to seem like the sort of historical revisionism where everyone just got along in the antebellum South.

Well, maybe the alternative is to have no re-enactors at all, which would be fine with me because I find them kind of weird and not as helpful as a decent guide and some signs, but that's just me.
posted by Copronymus at 3:43 PM on March 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


I've never been to Colonial Williamsburg, or any other place where the re-enactment included depictions of slaves. I found Monticello plenty disturbing without any actors in it at all.

I'm reminded of Henry Louis Gates' genealogy special from last year, and how his subjects responded to the news that they were descended from slaveholders/nonslaveholders/free blacks/native americans. History can feel remote, but re-enactment and genealogy both have a way of making the events of 300 years ago come alive in a sometimes uncomfortable way. I don't think I could ever participate in something like that, but a re-enactment at Colonial Williamsburg without any depiction of slavery at all would be so dishonest as to be offensive. That they did exactly that for 60 years probably should not be a surprise. But still troubling.
posted by ambrosia at 4:02 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


leaving slavery and slave-owners entirely out of your representation of 18th century Virginia is arguably worse
This is where I arbitrarily point out that representation != recreation. It's perfectly acceptable to represent history without having to recreate it.
posted by Blue_Villain at 4:07 PM on March 11, 2013


Blue_Villain: "This is where I arbitrarily point out that representation != recreation. It's perfectly acceptable to represent history without having to recreate it."

Absolutely it is, and I would be totally fine if they ditched all of the re-enactors and stuck with representing history instead of trying to recreate it. I just think it would be troubling for them to have only white people wandering around and for the stories of the black people who lived there to be told only through white people and museum exhibits.
posted by Copronymus at 5:35 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is where I arbitrarily point out that representation != recreation. It's perfectly acceptable to represent history without having to recreate it.

Sure, but so what? There are a lot of ways to talk about history; plenty of places don't use recreation if you don't like it. Recreation is not for everyone (I rather explore and read on my own) but there's not reason for me to say it shouldn't be done. In fact, that it could raise some issues in an uncomfortable way seems like an argument to keep it around, even if it's not for everyone.
posted by spaltavian at 5:43 PM on March 11, 2013


Re-enactments are corny and awkward, but they underscore the basic fact that *this happened here*. A historical re-enactment isn't valuable because it's the most effective and accurate way of teaching history. It is valuable because it communicates history in a way that the everyman can grasp. "In this town you are standing in 200 years ago, men of European descent literally owned men of African descent. Here's what that would have felt like." We live in a visual age, thanks to the tube. Stuff like historical re-enactments at least appeals to the modern demand for theatrics.
posted by deathpanels at 5:46 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'm sure this is tough for the actors involved but I'm of the opinion that if you're going to do historical re-enactments you'd best do them right. It would be vulgar to omit or candy-coat the slavery in any way.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:04 PM on March 11, 2013


We live in a visual age, thanks to the tube. Stuff like historical re-enactments at least appeals to the modern demand for theatrics.

This. Especially in light of other recent theatrical takes on slavery. If people are going to learn history based on what they see (as opposed to what they read), it's worth everything that they get an accurate picture.
posted by hopeless romantique at 6:05 PM on March 11, 2013


I think that re-enactments, especially of this sort that purport to give people the experience of "what it was like to be a slave/be a slaveowner," need to be meticulously researched and very, very carefully conducted. However, I think there is value in the immediacy of an immersive experience. One of the most striking things in the interview I linked to above is when the interviewer asks him if he thinks he'd be capable of such sadistic behaviour. He says yes, he thinks he would be, and that he thinks everyone has a mean streak deep inside.

One of the youth volunteers in the program is quoted here as saying, "The Halseys [a Quaker family in the re-enactment who help in the Underground Railroad] treat the fugitive slaves like equals. I’d like to think if I lived back in the 1830s I’d be a Halsey and help people escape to freedom, but I don’t know if the fear factor would be at play. People who helped slaves could be fined or worse."

I think it's human nature to want to think we would always act our best selves and do the right thing no matter the circumstance, but it's valuable to realize that racism is more than just bad acts by bad individuals; it's about being complicit in systems of oppression held in place by institutions as well as individuals.

I would be more interested to read about this if it were about a person or persons who had to live with the job for longer than a weekend.

I agree. I would also be interested in reading an account of a black person or person of colour who had gone through the Follow the North Star program. It was interesting to read the article about the actor playing the part of a slave for two shows, but I am curious how it would affect someone who was not used to taking on a role but was also likely to have experienced racism and discrimination in everyday life.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:22 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


“It’s sometimes hard to remember that these enslaved people were people,” Weldon said.

Ahhh, whaaaaaaaaaaat?
posted by liketitanic at 6:56 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't want to be a re-enactor and get into that mindspace for anything.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:33 PM on March 11, 2013


I've been in shows where 'status' is a major aspect of character and role development. Those of us in 'low status' roles found it hard to leave behind that feeling of self-hatred and constant shame that infuses the part. It even cost me a couple friendships.

That being said, as a black American, I can't even fathom what it would take to walk away from this position on a daily basis. The money's not enough and I wonder what type of psychological training it would take a shrink to assist a person in this line of work. The play's the thing and all that; you absolutely bring your work home with you.
posted by artof.mulata at 8:01 PM on March 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm fairly close to this sort of thing in my field. I really appreciate seeing how people view it.

Not to harsh on this program, but I would be more interested to read about this if it were about a person or persons who had to live with the job for longer than a weekend.

This may not come as a great shock, but one of the problems that living history sites run into immediately is that not a lot of people want to play an enslaved person as a part-time or full-time job. Colonial Williamsburg definitely gets some props for trying to find productive ways around this that don't whitewash history, such as developing the Revolutionary City program which involves more of a series of discrete scenes played by actors working from a script than a full first-person all-day immersion with improvisational structure, and this guest artist program which does not demand that the person inhabit this role day in, day out. A close colleague is quoted in this story, and i've heard a bit about it from her - CW is dealing in the same cultural stew that most public history sites are, because frankly, our history is freaking difficult and our present day has a fairly long way to go too, but there are people working hard to find a way to do this so that no more visitors walk away reaffirming their fantasties of a white Colonial America - especially when the population of Williamsburg specifically during the 1770s was 51% people of color.

This article focused on subservience, but there's also a pretty fascinating program they do about building Great Hopes Plantation, which draws on the economics of slavery and emphasizes that Everything You See Here was slave-built, cultural survivals/foodways, and finding agency within tightly limiting constraints.

I don't have any problems with this that I don't have with all the rest of living history. It's quite a messy thing. But I do have incredible professional respect for the scholars and staff who do the difficult work of pulling this program off, sharing a great depth of information, and not letting a lazy American public off the hook.
posted by Miko at 8:04 PM on March 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Copronymus: "I'm sure it's pretty weird for the white actors in addition to clearly being troubling for the black actors, but the alternative is portraying a false history in which it's deeply unclear why slavery even existed at all if the white folks were against it and/or in which it starts to seem like the sort of historical revisionism where everyone just got along in the antebellum South."

Actually, I'm pretty sure that the worst part is CW's "demographic."

CW has no shortage of uneducated, racist, and misinformed tourists who go to relive the "good old days," and make all sorts of weird comments and questions toward the reenactors. Pointed questions about slavery are obviously greatly uncomfortable, and sadly far too common.

Every time I saw this happen, the reenactor would swiftly diffuse the situation with a factual explanation, and change the topic if the tourists wouldn't relent. They did this all without breaking character. It was very apparent that they all had specific training on dealing with those issues. As a whole, the reenactors do a great job, and they're really the entire point of CW's existence (the buildings are all fake). However, I can't imagine what it would be like for them to portray slavery -- their treatment of it very much seemed like 50% acknowledgement, and 50% sweeping-under-the-rug. That must be a difficult and painful line to walk.

I lived in Williamsburg for a few years, and the tourists were the worst (and a few of them were just outright assholes). However, it was pretty fun to run into off-duty CW employees around town. Nothing quite like pumping gas next to a guy in colonial garb.

I don't miss Williamsburg. Shut down the fake tourist trap, give the city back its downtown, and you might actually have a decent city left at the end of all that.
posted by schmod at 8:07 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


The money's not enough

This is a big problem across the field, so it ends up that you get a handful of really right on, mission-driven people who are obsessed with message and accuracy, and then leagues of fantasy-players who end up driving the wage structure down.

I lived in Williamsburg for a few years, and the tourists were the worst

it's all over the country, and visitors to these "attraction" style historic sites are, sadly, often the most socially conservative of Americans. They get mad when they don't see their version of events take place. During the early days of Tea Partyism, there were a lot of objections to the way the Founding Fathers were depicted at CW (ie, not completely in alignment with present-day ideology). I personally have fielded complaints about things like the actual history of Thanksgiving vs. the popular myth. These sites are where America's fantasy of itself meets a little of the reality of itself and it's definitely not always a good time.
posted by Miko at 8:08 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm listening to the This American Life episode, "Be Careful Who You Pretend To Be," that hurdy gurdy girl linked to above and it's so intense. If you have any questions about what it be like to do this day in and day out they are answered there. Brave and sickening work.
posted by artof.mulata at 8:14 PM on March 11, 2013


I always feel it important to point out that Conner Prairie's program was actually adapted by them from an experience developed as an interactive simulation to teach about the Underground Railroad in Quaker schools in the 80s. It was originally meant to be embedded in a big interdisciplinary unit of study with lots of primary source work and context, but the programs which have just extracted the "experience" part don't usually present the rest of the meat. I've been through Follow the North Star, and it's quite well done, but it does suffer from the same thing that all sorts of living history programs suffer from - it's presented really without a larger context (by necessity) and in the end, people make of it what they will.

I still think it's better for these sites to present something of difficult history than nothing at all. We've seen a first generation of attempts, and that's been an improvement, but I'm very much open to an evolution of the tactics.
posted by Miko at 8:26 PM on March 11, 2013


"...an evolution of the tactics..." I'd started daydreaming of that a short while into reading the FPP. What would it take to get the full picture? Are we, any of us, ready for that level of immersion? Would it play out like those Stanley Milgram group dynamic experiments?

The biggest fear I've had, as an actor, is how difficult it can be to not bring this home with you. The guy on the This American Life show talks about it. Theater theorists discuss it. I'm sure that you, Miko, have had to grapple with it, as well.

I envy you your experience, but my stomach is actually curdling from contemplating it. These sorts of games are incredible as teaching tools, but my fear is that as we as a nation haven't been able to discuss this stuff for the 45 years I've been alive without coming to blows how could we cope with an experience of this magnitude?

People make fun of acting as a profession without seeing the possibility for education, enlightenment via empathy with a character unlike the actor. Theater is a transformative experience in so many ways especially when coupled with strong research and group conversation. But it does have it's dangers.
posted by artof.mulata at 8:40 PM on March 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm sure that you, Miko, have had to grapple with it, as well.

Only as a manager, interpretive planner, critic of the field - I have rarely roleplayed myself and when I do I'm a white lady so I haven't personally borne the brunt of experiences like those in the article.
posted by Miko at 8:47 PM on March 11, 2013


"We’ve coined a term," said Katrinah Lewis, the actress who typically interprets Lydia. "Post-traumautic slave syndrome."

They coined the term? Someone should tell that to Joy DeGruy
posted by layceepee at 9:11 PM on March 11, 2013


"I'm a white lady so I haven't personally borne the brunt of experiences like those in the article."

Not sure it matters, playing any of the roles would have a potentially traumatic effect. That's what the American Life podcast gets at. The older white guy playing a slave master seems to really be going through a lot. Love to give that guy a hug.
posted by artof.mulata at 9:49 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


They get mad when they don't see their version of events take place. During the early days of Tea Partyism, there were a lot of objections to the way the Founding Fathers were depicted at CW (ie, not completely in alignment with present-day ideology).

They are, sadly, coming up with their own solutions for this.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:01 PM on March 11, 2013


The 4th graders have "Celebrate Virginia!" day at school this week and I just took a break from googling costume ideas because every costume idea for a white boy is fraught with hideous historical baggage. My "break" led me to metafilter, and this thread. Turns out that reading metafilter is not actually a good cure for overthinking things.

It's very tempting to go for the sanitized version of history -- plunk a tricorn hat on my kid and announce, "You're John Smith from Pocahontas. Go paint with all the colors of the wind, buddy." In fact, the curriculum seems to focus on celebrating the colonial Virginia, rather than the confederate, slaveholding Virginia.

The problem is that your race is a part of your costume that you don't get to choose. I'm glad the kids are learning about rough times in our nation's history, but I'm not sure they need to dress up as the participants.
posted by selfmedicating at 10:20 PM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am really having a lot of trouble with this article. It blames the actors for essentially being weak-willed and easily traumatized, rather than the setting and audience. I suspect that if the same people were doing the same performance in front of the great-grandchildren of slaves, it would be a constructive experience rather than a disturbing one. So isn't the problem Colonial Williamsburg itself, not the actors?
posted by miyabo at 6:23 AM on March 12, 2013


That is, the article comes across as saying "we didn't cover slavery for the first 100 years of our performance because no one wanted to perform as a slave," which is a really bad excuse.
posted by miyabo at 6:30 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've never been strongly interested in being an actor, but the behind the scenes work, Director, DoP, set construction etc. has always fascinated me. Yet portraying a slave sounds deeply challenging and of great interest. No idea if I would be able to do it and if so for how long, but oh my, the challenge.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:55 AM on March 12, 2013


I suspect that if the same people were doing the same performance in front of the great-grandchildren of slaves

Well, they are doing this to some degree. Their public school visitation program is pretty big. Context does matter, though. It's interesting to think about an alternate reality version of CW that was absolutely envisioned, executed and led by people of color and how that'd be different. I wish there were such a place, but I'm not aware of any. And there are some defects in the very creation of "living history" as an interpretation method that you just can't overcome, which, I speculate, may be partly responsible for why "living history" is presented more often as performance piece/time-limited experience by actors and program managers of color than in immersive, improvisational settings.

laying any of the roles would have a potentially traumatic effect.

I see what you're saying and that's quite true for the scenarios in the piece, but I wouldn't claim to have walked in any of the shoes of people performing this difficult a history. I've never done anything dealing overtly with these themes, nor have I supervised anyone doing that. I don't work at CW and the sites at which I worked went in different thematic directions, though one could certainly mount a critique of the sins of omission in those as well.

That is, the article comes across as saying "we didn't cover slavery for the first 100 years of our performance because no one wanted to perform as a slave," which is a really bad excuse.

That's true - well, they were only founded in the 1930s but that's certainly true for the first 50 years. I can attest, however, to the fact that the idea and the willingness to reframe interpretation around a more accurate representation of history has been around for a long time, but the prevailing method of hire was "build it and they will come," which "they" didn't. As you might imagine. These institutions had to change the way they worked, and develop specific roles, programs, and staffing structures (like the ones in the article) in order to win participation from people of color. For reasons that are pretty obvious - I wouldn't have rushed to work in an institution I wasn't entirely sure was on my side just because they placed an ad in the paper. I would need to understand the intellectual goals, the scholarly foundations, the commitment and the intent of the institution. That's where the problem really lay and it took some time to overcome. And it has its roots in the way these institutions formed, the people who ran them and their ideological orientation to American history - so much of what's happening at CW is a magnified, better-resourced version of what's been happening at living history museums across the US since the 80s.

For an interesting look into this, check out The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg, also the revised late 1990s CW interpretive plan Becoming Americans: The Struggle to be Both Free and Equal.
posted by Miko at 7:53 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Copronymus: but the alternative is portraying a false history in which it's deeply unclear why slavery even existed at all if the white folks were against it and/or in which it starts to seem like the sort of historical revisionism where everyone just got along in the antebellum South.
Oh, you mean the TV series Little House on the Prairie, where the black family was joyfully accepted into town by EVERYONE except Nelly's mama, which just pointed out how incredibly awful she was, but thankfully she came around by the end of the episode to welcome them into her heart as she never really did any other human beings outside her own family, ever.

God, I hated that saccharine shit show as a kid. "Why can't we be more racially sensitive, like the 19th-century Midwesterners were?"
posted by IAmBroom at 1:24 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


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