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Young Thomas Jefferson

Becoming Thomas Jefferson: My Journey Up Toms Mountain

April 28, 2016 by Kurt Smith

I had my first Jefferson dream about two months ago. I was sitting, writing, at a cherry desk. The room was dim and I couldn’t see the entire space, but I could feel that it was small. On one dark wall was a bookshelf. A rug was on the wide planked floor. And in the corner of the room, eyes fixed on the pages of a book, was a boy. He was sitting with one leg under him and the other bent at his chest, absent-mindedly gnawing on his finger while the bulk of his attention was absorbed by whatever words were on the pages.

I don’t know how I knew, but I knew this was Peter Jefferson’s study at Shadwell, the Jefferson family seat. After I woke up, I laid there, staring at the ceiling and eventually found myself reliving every major life decision that brought me to this amazing place, Colonial Williamsburg, and all the many similarities between the man, Thomas Jefferson, and myself.

I did not grow up in the Piedmont among 1,600 acres of land, but to the curious mind of a boy in Arkansas, there is an entire kingdom to be found in an acre. Both Thomas’ and my childhoods were spent, at least partially, with wilderness underfoot and with parents who understood that a formal education in the classroom is just as valuable as the informal education you learn from nature.

In Arkansas, where I spent my time until I was 22, I had a father who, like Peter Jefferson, was a giant to me and was be able to accomplish anything. My dad may never have trekked 90-miles into wilderness dismal enough “strike terror into any human creature” but I recall attempting to hunt with him as a boy and thinking he was a mighty god when he would come back with a buck. My mom taught me how to live a life of quiet dignity, to never speak ill of people. They both worked tirelessly for our family. I know what it’s like to live in the very long, but gentle, shadow of two heroic parents.

These are the same parents I asked one humid summer before my senior year of college to, “Please, sit down. I have something to tell you.” My father, the chemist, and my mother, the math teacher, obliged. They were very still. While the air conditioner hummed in the background, I told them I was switching my major from Biology, where I had a full scholarship, to Theatre. My father, the chemist, asked, “How are you going to make any money?” My mother, the math teacher, sat confused.

I’ve created characters for Pulitzer finalists, collaborated with Tony award winners on new plays, played a lead character in an Emmy Award-winning TV series, traveled the country performing, taught college acting classes, gained two degrees in the field, and written a nationally-acclaimed play with my wife.

Oh, and I met my wife while learning Cirque arts for a show; my heart fell for a trapeze artist. What is one plus side to trusting a person to hold your life in her hands? You trust that person with your heart.

I’ve now devoted half my life to understanding people, looking for what motivates them, what scares them, and what drives them—and discovering what gives them great joy. I’ve spent half my life discovering what the world looks like through the eyes of other people. When I came to audition for this job of portraying young Thomas Jefferson and realized there was not one 80-page script, but 22,000 letters—I was both terrified and thrilled. Never before had I been given so much material though which to maneuver. There is great freedom in that movement. And I have an incomparable mentor.

I remember vividly the first time I met Bill Barker. I was walking up the sloped dirt path that leads to the Charlton Stage when it happened (No, I didn’t see a tall gentleman in fine 18th-century dress). It began pouring rain. The skies had, in one moment, opened up and there was zero chance of keeping your underwear dry. A voice called out in the near distance, one I would two seconds later come to know as Bill Barker’s voice. He offered protection under the porch of his own home that day and “in all future storms,” he said. This generosity is something I have come to understand as the way Bill lives his life. I could write an entire blog about the journey on which Bill Barker has taken me and pepper in stories like this. In fact, I believe I will do just that soon. Very soon…

The trick to approaching Thomas Jefferson is to continue to see him as a human, not an immortalized god. The absolute best parts of my day are finding some very human, very flawed, very hopeful, very raw anecdote of Jefferson’s life. To take him off that pedestal we created for him is, for me, not an act of malice as the toppling of some ousted ruler’s statue, but rather a way to truly see the man. To look him in his eyes and say, “I see you. I see you.” This is where I am now, slowly ascending Tom’s mountain. Not to reach the summit and say, “I’ve arrived”, but to enjoy the winding roads along the way. Slowly, letter-by-letter, I am making my way to meet the boy sitting on the floor of that dimly lit room. Perhaps I’ll interrupt him and ask him a million questions. Or, perhaps I’ll look over his shoulder and read the same words he read.

GUEST BLOGGER: KURT SMITH

KurtSmithKurt Benjamin Smith portrays young Thomas Jefferson at Colonial Williamsburg. He lives with his wife and their test child: a 4 year old Spaniel mix named Stella.When he’s not imagining conversations he would have with Jefferson, he enjoys reading a non-discriminatory array of books, stalking Bill Barker, helping himself to unhealthy portions of scientific articles, cooking with his wife, talking to the budding vegetables in his backyard gardens and making Michelle laugh. On his weekends, he and Michelle frequent Williamsburg Winery with dear friends.