Actress Erica Hubbard is on set at Studio Space Atlanta during rehearsal… (David Walter Banks/THE…)
Before Erica Hubbard could portray an enslaved housekeeper, which she’ll do this weekend at Colonial Williamsburg, she had to learn some things about life in revolutionary times — including how slaves interacted with their masters circa 1776.
These lessons are so painful that some African American actors simply can’t bear to learn them. Even as Colonial Williamsburg and other historic sites have tried to do justice to the story of slavery and attract more minority visitors, they’ve sometimes had difficulty persuading black actors to take jobs interpreting enslaved figures.
It was easy to see why as Hubbard was being schooled on slavery in 18th-century Virginia one recent Sunday by two men from Colonial Williamsburg’s theatrical division.
On a soundstage in suburban Atlanta, not far from where Hubbard films the Black Entertainment Television romcom “Let’s Stay Together,” the 34-year-old actress listened intently as the men discussed the master-servant dynamic.
“When he comes in, she just bends at the knees,” Bill Weldon said.
“It’s a relationship with very clearly defined roles,” Stephen Seals explained.
Hubbard shifted in her folding chair.
Weldon, who is white, pretended to be Lydia Broadnax, a black woman whose little-documented life (they’re not even certain about her last name and are disinclined to use it) has become an obsession for Colonial Williamsburg researchers. Seals, who is black, was temporarily portraying Lydia’s owner, George Wythe, a Founding Father and legal scholar who mentored Thomas Jefferson.
Seals looked at Weldon, who averted his eyes. “Even if they were in close proximity,” Weldon said, “Lydia would never really look at Wythe directly.”
Hubbard’s own eyes widened. “Wow, wow, wow,” said Hubbard, who appeared to be taken aback by slavery’s strictures.
Seals understood her discomfort. “There’s always a real strain to playing an enslaved character,” he said.
He would know, having begun working as a slave interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg nearly five years ago. Seals is now a supervisor in the actor-interpreter unit, which employs 44 people — including 11 blacks — to act out historical characters in proper period costume on the 301-acre property.
It’s a scholarship-based storytelling method known as living history.
Part of his job, Seals said, is to ensure that the actors remember that they are not who they interpret. “We’re taught to be detached from your character. Doing these roles really tests that hypothesis,” he said. “It’s not for everyone.”
The costumes can be psychologically problematic. So, too, can guests, who often aren’t sure how to respond when confronted with a shameful chapter of American history.
Sympathetic visitors to Williamsburg have been known to bump or block white actor-interpreters who are haranguing or otherwise mistreating enslaved black characters. Occasionally, they’ve grabbed prop guns or started to shout about fighting back.
Racist and demeaning comments aren’t uncommon. Willie Wright, a veteran actor-interpreter, said a child once asked him if he was a slave. When Wright said yes, the boy, who was white, demanded that Wright bring him a soda.
A woman once stopped Seals to ask him, “Why are black people still so angry?”
“We’ve coined a term,” said Katrinah Lewis, the actress who typically interprets Lydia. “Post-traumautic slave syndrome.”
The result is that Colonial Williamsburg has struggled to fill one slavery role: that of a young, black male.
The position, a full-time job that pays between $13 and $18 an hour, has been open for two years, said Weldon, the organization’s director of historic area programming. “Some people turned us down because they didn’t want to portray an enslaved character.” Other sites in Virginia and Maryland have hit similar roadblocks.
“You interview people, and they’ll say: ‘I just can’t do it. I can’t put on that costume,’ ” said Tricia Brooks, Colonial Williamsburg’s African American initiatives manager. “It comes with a lot of baggage. If you haven’t unpacked that baggage before you put the costume on, you’re going to have problems.”
But Williamsburg’s black actors believe that telling the story is a responsibility. “Some people haven’t thought about what happened to our people,” Lewis said. “We’re making them think about what it really may have been like in the 18th century.”
Embracing painful history
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.