Actors, Interpreters Bring US Colonial Past Alive

Historical sites like Colonial Williamsburg, Va. give tourists a peek into a world absent of Internet, television and telephones. These sites are increasingly trying to make visitors think about some of the more complicated moments in history. Host Michel Martin speaks with writer Rachel Manteuffel and Greg James, an actor-interpreter who portrays a slave at Colonial Williamsburg.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: And now we open up the pages of The Washington Post magazine, something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. Today we have a piece about making the past come alive now. Now, many people are in the middle of planning a family vacation to one of the nation's many historic sites. This week's Post magazine has a story about Colonial Williamsburg.

Rachel Manteuffel wrote about her experience strolling down the cobblestone streets, mingling with the likes of Thomas Jefferson and our next guest, Will, who we'll tell you a little bit more about. She's with us now from our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

RACHEL MANTEUFFEL: Wonderful to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: And our next guest is also someone that Rachel interacted with while at Colonial Williamsburg. His name is Greg James. He is an actor-interpreter who portrays an enslaved American known as Will. And he's with us on the line from Williamsburg. Mr. James, thank you for joining us.

GREG JAMES: Hello, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Rachel, just to start by just asking you why you were interested in this.

MANTEUFFEL: Well, as a theater person, I had heard from actors that there was this attempt to bring the past alive and with more perspectives than you would think of in Williamsburg. So I went to see for myself.

MARTIN: And tell us, for people who aren't familiar with Colonial Williamsburg, describe it a little bit, if you would.

MANTEUFFEL: Well, sure. It was the colonial capital of Virginia and once the capital of Virginia moved to Richmond, it sort of fell into a backwater, I guess, where there wasn't a lot of growth. And then in the 1920s, a minister decided to restore as many buildings as he could to just make it seem as it had in colonial times. And in the very beginning that included people dressed up in costumes.

MARTIN: Yeah. You make the point in the piece - this is something that I didn't know - that Colonial Williamsburg has been opened to the public since the 1930s. And that originally there has always been criticism from scholars that the place initially didn't really acknowledge slavery at all.

MANTEUFFEL: Sure.

MARTIN: And that when it eventually did, they had African-American employees who were costumed, who were segregated. And that eventually they clued into the fact that they should probably try to embrace a more authentic and deeper understanding of the historical period, including enhancing the roles of the enslaved Americans and the characters that they played.

Now, that's where Greg James comes in. Greg, why did you want to do this?

JAMES: Well, many reasons why I wanted to do that. First off, I wanted to do that because our ancestors are not able to speak for themselves. And so their voices need to be heard as well.

MARTIN: Is anybody in your family or any of your friends say, what are you doing? Why would you want to put yourself in that mindset?

JAMES: Well, not only family and friends, but certain ministers and reverends would say, this is the past, we don't need the past to come up again. Let's just forget about this slavery. And that had been one of my challenges interpreting slavery, because it is a touchy subject.

MARTIN: But you find it fulfilling because?

JAMES: One of the reasons is because I simplified as much as I can. Second reason is, it's more to it than just being lashed. Of course that did exist and that did happen. However, these individuals fought for the same freedom, rights and independence as we have today.

MARTIN: Now, Rachel, you write about an encounter that you had with Mr. James, known as Will, in Colonial Williamsburg. And you write about that in the piece. And it actually was a very poignant encounter. Can you just describe that moment?

MANTEUFFEL: Well, sure. It was the highlight of my trip there. Mr. James was so present in his character that I was drawn into his life. And I couldn't sort of deny or think, you know, oh, it's 200 years later now or, oh, you know, of course slavery is wrong. It, it... Seeing him in that situation and being unable to help him, but, you know, he was still there, he was still talking, he still had a life.

MARTIN: Rachel talked about in the piece how she came upon you, Mr. James, telling a tourist family that the revolutionaries were talking only of their own freedom, not freedom for everybody. And as you walked by, she describes how you straightened up and advised the family that you never know who is listening and bowed to her and said, I didn't mean any trouble. And that when she tried to kind of get you to break character and say, no, you're fine, you would not break character. Do you remember that encounter, Mr. James?

JAMES: I remember that quite well.

MARTIN: Tell me about your end of it, what was going through your mind.

JAMES: Well, what's going through my mind is Will, my character, doesn't know, you know, who's who. Specifically with Ms. Rachel, I don't know her. All I know that she's a white woman; and as far as I know, she could be the sheriff's wife or the constable's wife or the slave patrol wife. And so, you know, he's very cautious.

MARTIN: You also use the opportunity to amplify the backstory. You talked about how Will's wife and son had been sold. And how you miss them, but that you didn't know whether, perhaps you should try to find another wife. And really making very real the human dilemma of bondage, of having no control over your family life and what could happen to them.

JAMES: That was quite painful. That particular story about Will's wife and his son, it even touches me right now as I'm speaking to you. And it was during the Christmastides when, you know, they are celebrating and, you know, the season and so on and so forth. And all of a sudden, overseer comes in the door and they gather because they're looking forward to getting their Christmas box, only to be told that three of the individuals had to be sold off. So you five decide which three of you will go.

MARTIN: Rachel, before we let you go, what do you say to people who say, I don't know if I want to deal with all that on my vacation?

MANTEUFFEL: Well, I think it is - you can avoid it, if you want to. You can walk away from Will if you aren't sure how to explain to your children, but I really hope you don't, because otherwise you get this picture of Colonial Williamsburg as much more, like, Disneyland for American history, and things weren't that way. And there's so much more there to see.

MARTIN: And you also mentioned in the piece that many people often try to buy Will to give him his freedom. Were you tempted to buy Will to give him his freedom?

MANTEUFFEL: I assume so.

MARTIN: Greg James, have you ever had any particularly tempting offers as Will? There are many people, you're saying, that some people just break down and cry.

JAMES: All of the above. Children as well. They want - mommy, can we take Will with us? There's no slavery up north and then maybe we can find his wife and maybe we can find his boy, and then they could be a real family just like everyone else. And then you have, of course, you have those individuals that - aren't you grateful that we did bring your people from Africa, you know, yada, yada, yada.

So, you have to deal with that as well. But your question about individual wanting to purchase Will and take him up north, oh, absolutely. Several times.

MARTIN: Well, it must be wonderful to have that kind of impact.

JAMES: Yeah. I enjoy it very much.

MARTIN: Greg James is an actor-interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. He portrays an enslaved American called Will. He joined us on the line from Williamsburg, Virginia. Rachel Manteuffel is a writer. She wrote about her experience in Colonial Williamsburg in this week's Washington Post magazine. If you'd like to read the piece in its entirety - we hope you will - it's called Colonial In - and In is spelled I-N. And we'll post a link to that piece on our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

Greg James, Rachel Manteuffel, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

JAMES: Yes, thank you very much.

MANTEUFFEL: Thank you. Thanks to you, too, Mr. James.

JAMES: Oh, it's my pleasure, Rachel.

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