Williamsburg's tale of two histories
WILLIAMSBURG, VA. — Some scenes may be too intense for younger children."
No one expects such a warning label at Colonial Williamsburg, the nation's leading living history museum - better known for its fifes and drums, English boxwood hedges, and peanut soup at the King's Arms Tavern.
But the caution is apt if you're taking youngsters to "Broken Spirit," the latest program in a year-long series on slavery in Colonial Virginia. The story turns on the brutal beating of a young African slave.
"It's a very serious program. If you came here to laugh, you will be very disappointed," Williamsburg tour guide Rod Pressley cautions visitors.
Slaves made up about half the population of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia's capital from 1699 to 1780. But until recently their stories were rarely told here. When they were, it was often in the context of a celebration, such as the "jumping the broom" wedding ceremony. The lash was kept well under wraps.
"We had been making all kinds of assumptions about what the visitor would like. Conventional wisdom was that programs on slavery will turn a lot of people off and they won't come. In fact, the opposite is true," says Christie Matthews, director of interpretive development at Colonial Williamsburg. "It's been great watching our audiences grow and diversify. Those who aren't interested, they steer clear."
"Broken Spirit" plays out in the slave quarters of Carter's Grove, a former plantation eight miles southeast of Williamsburg. The mud-chinked log cabins are reconstructions, built on foundations excavated in the 1970s.
It's a simple setting, yet there is a sense of place here as powerful as any in the Historic Area. In the capital, statesmen of the American Revolution reasoned through the issue of freedom from Great Britain. Here, enslaved men and women who didn't leave tracts personally grappled with the problem of freedom every day.
The slaves depicted in "Broken Spirit" were people who lived on this site. Their story is based on 18th-century plantation and parish records, as well as an abundance of new research.
"Twenty years ago, we had only a handful of things to work with. Now, we're seeing a constant stream of work from new researchers," says Ms. Matthews, who also wrote "Broken Spirit."
As the "Broken Spirit" program begins, there are sounds of a whipping going on just out of sight. Two slaves, Nan and Sukey, argue about who is to blame. An African newcomer, Kofi, had tried to run away and was discovered (with Nan's assistance), then punished. "That African over there is your kind, too. We can't be going against each other," says Sukey, Nan's surrogate mother.
But many children in the audience aren't following this story line. By the 39th crack of the whip, some are tugging on parents and whispering: "What's happening?" and "Is someone hurt?" (The unspoken question: "Why isn't any grownup doing something about this?)
When the action shifts to the bedside where the young African is tended by other slaves, the kids start worrying in earnest. Inside the dimly lit cabin, Kofi's torn flesh looks real. After a few minutes, a father in the audience guides his just-school-aged sons out the door. The children look shaken. "They're just actors," explains Lewis Richardson, who lives in nearby Virginia Beach.
Out of his sons' earshot, he adds: "It's about time we hear about slavery, and this puts a face on it. The intensity is part of it. What went on in there is even light compared to what it was like."
Back in the cabin, the story line is getting complicated - and it's no longer clear who is to blame. Kofi had not run away: He'd gone to pray to his god for help to return to Africa. He barely speaks English, and it's been hard to connect with creole slaves, who have been at Carter's Grove for a generation.
The plot turns on misunderstandings between creole natives and the African newcomer, as well as some tragic personal trade-offs forced by slavery. "Sometimes the trouble ain't always the master; sometimes the trouble is us," says Bristol, another slave.
In the final scene, the foreman, Daniel, tries to justify the harsh beating to his wife, Judith. Turns out, the master ordered his foreman to punish the runaway by cutting off his foot (a documented punishment for that offense). Daniel persuades him to reduce the punishment, but at a price: Judith is to be hired away from the plantation, so he won't be "distracted" from his duties. (Plantation records show that a foreman's wife named Judith was sent to work for a family in Williamsburg.)
"I wanted to show that there is a very complex series of social structures and rules within the slave community - that they themselves have lives and issues that literally tear them apart," says Matthews. "I wanted the visitor to understand that black people are not a homogeneous group, and we never were."
After the performance, it's hard for actors to get out of character: "By the end of the night, I find it difficult that I've played such an intense character," says Sheila Arnold, who plays Nan. "What shocks people so much about this program is that slaves become human. They don't all just think in one way - the way you think they should."
Responses to the Enslaving Virginia program have been so powerful that Williamsburg added a debriefing session so visitors could ask questions and talk through their reactions.
"It sort of hurt my heart to see it. But, actually, it wasn't as intense as I expected," says Eleanor Holt, who drove down from Baltimore. She recalls stories of slave life passed down from her great-grandmother, who was given 25 acres of land on the plantation where she worked as a slave.
Her husband, Robert, and others in the audience draw parallels between "Broken Spirit" and experiences in their own lives. "Racism isn't over. It's underground. It's hidden, and redress is hard. But it's good to talk about things in the open," says Mr. Holt.
Another visitor recalls details of the plot days after she saw it. "I cried when I saw 'Broken Spirit.' I felt everything they went through - Daniel, Nan, Sukey, Kofi - I even remember their names," says Irene White, a visitor from Culpeper, Va. "I'm glad they're beginning to teach both sides, and I like to see that it's not just black Americans that are coming out to see it."
In-house visitor surveys confirm that many new visitors didn't come to see pretty gowns or to learn how to make candles. They came to hear about slavery, and they wouldn't have come without it.
"Historically, our audience has been 5 percent African-American, at best estimates. Over the past month, I've had opportunity to count faces during presentations and I can tell you that percentage is much higher than 5 percent," says Jim Bradley, a spokesman for Colonial Williamsburg.
One visitor insists that the new focus on slavery is the only reason he made the trip here. "When the tall ships came to New York [for the Bicentennial], I asked my father if he wanted to go see them. He said, 'You mean the slave ships' - and he wouldn't go," says Ronald Cox of New York City.
"After seeing this, I feel there is hope this place will be a place my father would want to come. If they are beginning to tell the truth here, it will be a place black people will come," he adds.
Moreover, visitors aren't just coming to watch. They're getting passionately involved in the discussions. During a recent tour on slaves in Williamsburg, a visitor offers her own observation: "But we are all guilty. As an African, I deeply regret that my ancestors were involved in facilitating this horrible system. I wish they hadn't," said Kekelwa Nyaywa, a writer from Southern Africa.
Another tour member objected: Slavery was something whites did to blacks, says an African-American from New York, who asked that her name not be used. "You can't say 'your ancestors.' You have to say 'some of them' or 'a few of them.' You have to watch what you say, people are listening to you."
Words heat up, and the African visitor walks away from the tour. "She shouldn't have had to go. She was making some good points," says Bob White, a visitor from Culpeper.
Commenting later on this incident, Mrs. Nyaywa added: "She said that I shouldn't be saying this. I don't understand. If it's my people involved, I have to ask: What did they do?
"We should look at the historic facts: What was happening in Africa at the time, as well as the situation at the receiving end.... It does not mean exonerating the perpetrators - the slave traders and the slave owners who subjected slaves to terrible and inhumane treatment. It means sharing some responsibility and guilt for what happened to our people," she adds.
Nearby, at the Tenant House, a student challenges the character of Lydia Cooper, a free black woman who owned slaves herself: "Don't you ever feel guilty owning slaves?"
Valerie Perry, who plays Lydia, fires off the scripted response. "If I were not their mistress they would have another. Have you asked the same question to Mr. Jefferson or Mr. Randolph or Mr. Washington? Do I understand that as I am a free Negro I am not allowed to have a white indentured servant."
The visitor looks stunned at the force of her retort. "You are asking the question others want to," adds Ms. Perry, gently - and almost stepping out of character.
Historians who follow these questions closely say they are not surprised at the heated conversations these new programs are prompting.
"Williamsburg has changed dramatically from a lily white, rather hands off, just watch things [kind of place]. Now they're really engaging people and taking on really significant issues," says Philip Morgan, a history professor at the College of William and Mary.
"They're bringing what historians have been debating arcanely in rarefied books and they're bringing it down to the level that people can relate to. They're certainly confronting slavery," he adds. (His recent book, "Slave Counterpoint," is a landmark refutation of the view that slave culture was monolithic.)
"You really can't capture a people's experience by saying this was always this way or this was always that way," says historian Dianne Swann-Wright, director of special programs at Monticello. "As we get ready for this new century, people are just very interested in trying to understand the complexity of slavery."
The road to Carter's Grove
Carter's Grove, the plantation that shows 'Broken Spirit,' is in Jamestown, Va., just a short distance from Williamsburg's Historic Area.
Shows are in the evening at 7, 7:30, 8, and 8:30 and cost $8 to $10 over and above the price of a regular Williamsburg tour pass.
Although three passes are offered, the Patriot's Pass is the best deal and is the only one that includes Carter's Grove. You pay $35 per adult and $20 per child between the ages of 6 and 12. The pass is for the year and gives access to museums, exhibits, and plantations, plus discounts on evening shows and some shopping and dining.
The other passes are for either one or two day visits. But for the $2 or $3 saving you miss out on access to many things.
The sites are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day but Monday. For more information call (800) HISTORY or try their Web site: www.history.org
- Christy Ellington
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society