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.