African-American programming takes center stage at Colonial Williamsburg

Jonathan Black
Contact Reporterjoblack@dailypress.com
"Journey to Redemption" is a play that has been running in CW since last spring

With its deep brick-red colored wood, the Peyton Randolph House is easily seen from Colonial Williamsburg's Market Square. It is named after the president of the first Continental Congress, dates back to the 18th century and was at one time home to 31 residents — 28 of whom were slaves.

It's a fact Stephen Seals carries with him today, as someone working to bring stories of Africans in America to Colonial Williamsburg.

"I don't know how you can tell the story of that household without including that story and those people," he said. "That was an initiative we had been talking about for many years."

The goal is to not only have these stories told during Black History Month, but to have them be part of Colonial Williamsburg's programming for the entire year.

African-American programming

When Seals began as program development manager of African-American and religions interpretation five years ago, the goal was to make his job obsolete. He wanted to see inclusive programming year-round in Williamsburg.

The push for expanded African-American programming started long before Seals was part of the foundation. It began in 1979, when CW hired black actors in roles as enslaved characters. 

"Since then, the goal has been to further augment programming by showing the stories of the African in America, whatever that meant," he said. "In the '80s, it was different. In the '90s, it was different. In the 2000s, it was different."

In 1987 Black History Month programming kicked off. Twelve years later, the foundation launched "Enslaving Virginia," a year-long theme of depicting small-scale slave rebellions, according to Daily Press archives.

In the meantime, the tourist spot has been hosting Black History Month events for the better part of a decade.

"February tended to be a low visitation time here," Seals said. "As a foundation, we've made a more concerted effort to consolidate all of the programs we're doing, marketing them out there so that the nation knows these are here."

He's noticed a bigger push in the last two to three years, something he credited to CW Foundation President Mitchell Reiss and Ted Maris-Wolf, vice president of research and historical interpretation.

The increased focus on black history came with questions of how to address slavery to Williamsburg visitors.

Seals bounced different ways CW could handle it. One is depicting the unflinching brutality of the subject. On the other hand, Seals said, it's important make sure people feel welcomed and comfortable enough to ask questions.

Jamar Jones is an actor-interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. Two of his roles are playing enslaved men, Mingo and Roger.

"We have to understand the weight that comes with it ... You can get people to look at someone that's different from them, acknowledge the differences and respect it," he said. "We're starting a conversation."

It's a concept that will be highlighted at the Kimball Theatre in February with the play "Journey to Redemption."

'Journey to Redemption'

On a rainy morning at Williamsburg's Raleigh Tavern, a group of actor-interpreters were rehearsing lines for "Journey to Redemption," a play that depicts the challenges of portraying slavery.

It's a meta performance, with the actors shedding their characters in the final third to discuss the troubles and frustrations they've had playing slaves and slave owners in Williamsburg.

"We rarely come out of character for the guests, so this is the first time they get to hear our perspective of portraying these characters," said Corinne E. Dame, who plays slave owner Elizabeth Wythe.

Casting for the "Journey to Redemption" was done on a strictly volunteer basis. The title was the only thing that existed when the cast came together last spring. The play was developed around the experience of the six actors — be it from uncomfortable questions to being unable to remove oneself from the role.

"The subject we deal with and the ramifications from the institution of slavery — there's certain aspects we can't leave here," said Jeremy Morris, an actor-interpreter. "You try to find whatever joy is ours in the world, but sometimes there's very painful reminders around us, regardless of whether we're at work."

"Journey" spends its first 20 minutes acclimating the audience to the characters and the hardships they face before breaking that barrier down in the final 10 minutes.

The show has been running in CW since last spring. In that time, the actors have repeatedly seen audience members of all races — turn toward one another to converse well after the play has finished.

It's been just as much a journey for the seven people involved in the play.

"I didn't realize how much of what I do has been affecting me because I feel like I have repressed a lot of those hateful comments that I get from guests who are doing nothing but speaking out against slavery," Dame said. "It was a healing process. It's cathartic and rewarding."

For Seals it all goes back to making sure everyone is welcome to the table.

"The African-American story is not a black story. It's an American story," he said. "No matter what you look like, it's a story of your ancestors, it's a story of your people."

Black can be reached by phone at 757-247-4607.

Kimball Theatre programming

Other Black History month programming includes the premiere of a documentary, a film series and the ringing of the Freedom Bell at First Baptist Church.

The regional premiere of "Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise" is scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Kimball Theatre. The documentary, which will later appear on PBS, tracks the life of the literary icon.

Other films shown during the month are "Loving," about the Virginia interracial couple whose marriage resulted in the Supreme Court legalizing interracial marriage. Another is "Moonlight," about young black man dealing with his sexuality in a rough Miami neighborhood.

Culinary historian and author Michael Twitty will also visit Colonial Williamsburg to deliver a talk in February.

He will be part of the foundation's new "Revolutionaries in Residence," in which the foundation hosts innovators to "the nation with fresh perspectives that capture the spirit and relevance of its founding era," according to a news release.

Twitty will deliver a "REV Talk" at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 11.

To see a complete schedule of Black History month programming, visit colonialwilliamsburg.com/special-events/black-history-month or call 855-296-6627.

The Kimball Theatre is located at Merchants Square (428 W Duke of Gloucester Street, Williamsburg).

Freedom Bell

Guests will also have the opportunity to ring the Freedom Bell at First Baptist Church. This is believed to be the first black Baptist church organized by African-Americans for African-Americans.

The bell was repaired recently and, after falling silent in the 1950s, rang for the first time last year to mark the 240th anniversary of the church's congregation. More than 4,000 people rang the Freedom Bell last year.

To register to ring the bell, visit LetFreedomRingChallenge.org. First Baptist Church is located at 727 Scotland Street in Williamsburg.

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