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Power of Perspective

Participatory programming offers a window into history in thought-provoking ways

By Nicole Trifone


It’s May 1776. You are deciding the future of Virginia.

The Colony has dissolved its allegiance to England. George Mason has written “all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights,” and he wants that line included in the commonwealth’s Declaration of Rights.

Robert Carter Nicholas objects.

“Who would work our fields? Serve as our body servants?” Nicholas asks. “Besides, what would they do as free people? They cannot manage on their own.”

As Mason grapples with the idea of freedom and liberty for black people, he turns to you, his fellow delegate in the Fifth Virginia Convention: What’s your perspective?

In Resolved: An American Experiment, Mason is sometimes played by a white man and Nicholas by a black woman. Sometimes it’s the reverse. Sometimes it’s a different combination altogether.

Do you hear Nicholas’ statement differently when his rebuke is spoken by a black woman? Does your perspective shift?

“I wanted to celebrate the accomplishments of the Fifth Virginia Convention while illustrating the hypocrisy of what happened in that moment,” said Katrinah Lewis, the artistic director of actor-interpreters who wrote and directed Resolved. “What an interesting commentary to have a black female, for example, portraying a burgess member, and portraying him with the full possession of what that man would have been experiencing at that moment, but portraying him in her skin and her body.”

The new daily program epitomizes Colonial Williamsburg’s experimentation with perspective in its programming. Lewis used a color- and gender-blind process to cast Resolved. Twenty-two actor-interpreters play the four parts on a rotating schedule, shaking up the cast makeup for each performance.

Historic Area guests have a chance to participate throughout the 40-minute show. You may be a member of the House of Burgesses tasked with voting for or against independence from Great Britain. Or a member of Parliament, decrying the rebellion and passing legislation to squelch an uprising. Or you may not be a white, Protestant, property-owning man and instead one of the many disenfranchised — an enslaved person, a woman, a poor white farmer, a free black tradesperson — hoping these privileged men consider your wants and needs, your freedom and liberty.

The result is an immersive, fast-paced theatrical program that offers a twist to the traditional tour of Williamsburg’s Capitol. The audience moves from the House of Burgesses to the joint conference room to the General Court to learn not only about the commonwealth’s decision to declare its independence but also how the decisions from the Revolutionary era, despite the oppression during that time period, set a foundation for a gradual expansion of rights. “In the end, we’re talking about how our government is meant to serve us, and we — all of us — have to determine how that works by participating in our democracy,” Lewis said.

Building the Nation

Playing with perspective to engage the audience is an approach to programming that extends far beyond Resolved.

Colonial Williamsburg’s Nation Builder program, which features significant figures from 18th-century Williamsburg, has expanded to include those outside the political sphere who helped shape the American story. In the past year, the program has added five new historical figures: two enslaved people who gained their freedom, Aggy of Turkey Island and Revolutionary War spy James Armistead Lafayette; the first female public printer in Virginia, Clementina Rind; a white teacher of black students, Ann Wager; and a young Gowan Pamphlet, the original pastor of First Baptist Church of Williamsburg.

“For the most part, we’ve learned of America’s history through a certain perspective, and we want the personal stories of those we don’t often hear from brought to the forefront,” said Cheryl Ruschau, who manages the Nation Builder program. “It adds so much richness to the story without taking away the other perspectives.”

The Nation Builders have become even more approachable to guests through the new program Walk Through History with a Nation Builder, during which guests hear both in- and out-of-character inter­pretations of the town in hourlong tours led by Nation Builders.

What does George Mason want to say about religion as he leads a group past Bruton Parish Church? And what has Joe Ziarko, the man who portrays Mason, discovered about the Founder and religion in his own research? What lessons about power and leadership does Thomas Jefferson, played by Bill Barker, offer as he strolls by his former home, the Governor’s Palace?

“We’ve purposefully kept the capacity small for this program,” Ruschau said. “It’s a personal encounter and experience with a Nation Builder and this city through his or her eyes.”

Nation Builders also perform on stage in the Visit a Nation Builder series, either alone or with other actor-interpreters. The Marquis de Lafayette and James Lafayette recollect their friendship and their very different experiences fighting for the American cause. Over a game of chess, Jefferson and his most trusted slave, Jupiter, attempt to define what it means to believe that “all men are created equal.”

These imagined conversations challenge guests to explore 18th-century life from several angles and provoke thoughtful dialogue about how themes that defined the Revolutionary era resonate today.

A Legal View

Not all lessons to be learned from the 18th century stem from prominent figures or pivotal events, such as the Fifth Virginia Convention, in America’s fight for independence.

In a new twist on interpretation at the Courthouse, family fare includes daily mini trials that offer glimpses into the everyday struggles of the time. The long-running program Order in the Court, which runs for a portion of the afternoon, now features trials with more mature content.

In the mini trials, a white man might accuse another white man of not fulfilling his responsibility to maintain a road. A white woman without a husband but with the legal standing to testify on her own behalf — a feme sole — might be suing the carter she believes responsible for damaging her tobacco crop en route to the market.

Both programs ask audience members to serve as participants in a court trial, with more opportunities for guest participation in the family-friendly trials. The programs allow guests to step into the roles of 18th-century townspeople and see the cases through their eyes.

“Basically, the county courthouse is a giant Neighborhood Watch,” said Ramona Vogel, supervisor of family programming. “You are watching your neighbors. You are working to help police in situations that affect your community. We want our guests to feel what that would have been like.”

In Trial of a Patriot, the legal system is used to demonstrate the stakes of choosing to fight Britain. The program asks its audience to imagine a world in which the Americans lost the Revolutionary War. What would that have meant to those who chose to rise up against King George III? It would likely have meant death. The patriots committed treason, after all.

Guests watch as one of the many men who fought against Great Britain is put on trial. A woman he enslaved testifies against him, as does his son’s best friend. The audience has a voice in the final judgment: Is he guilty?

Up Close

The Historic Area offers ample opportunity to see Colonial Williamsburg up close, to not just observe but experience the many facets of Williamsburg during the American Revolution.

Stand inches away from the famous arms display in the Governor’s Palace Exploration or Children’s Tour of the Palace. Kids can admire the craftsmanship of, and maybe learn a trick or two from, the skilled laborers in one of the trade shops by signing up for a weeklong summer day camp. See Native American Culture Close Up with special programming at the Indian delegation. Learn firsthand the difficulty of Ax Throwing or what it feels like to Fire a Flintlock Musket. Find Liberty, Colonial Williamsburg’s canine mascot, by tapping the “Meet” tab in the Colonial Williamsburg Explorer mobile app.

Through theatrical performances, history-site tours, meals at the taverns and small talk with 18th-century townsfolk, guests see the town, its people and its place in history from myriad angles.

A calendar on colonialwilliamsburg.com/plan offers a list of new programs and such traditional favorites as Cry Witch, Carriage Rides and the Fifes and Drums March to help plan a visit to the Historic Area.

Marjorie Southerland plays Robert Carter Nicholas in some performances of Resolved: An American Experiment. (Tom Green/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Resolved: An American Experiment
Daily, 11 & 11:40 a.m. and 12:50 p.m.

This thought-provoking theater experience explores the moment Virginia said yes to American Independence.

Summer Camp for Kids
New day camps offer hands-on adventures from archaeology to making paste paper and more.

D.o.G. Street Adventures Camp for ages 9–11:

  • June 25–29
  • July 9–13
  • July 23–27
  • Aug. 6–10

D.o.G. Street Explorers Camp for ages 12–13

  • July 2–6
  • July 16–20
  • July 30–Aug. 3
  • Aug. 13–17

For information on registration and fees visit colonialwilliamsburg.com/summercamp or call 855-296-6627.

Walk Through History with a Nation Builder
Daily, 10:15 a.m.

See 18th-century Williamsburg through the eyes of a Nation Builder who will challenge you to think about our shared history in new ways.

Courthouse
Daily, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4 to 5 p.m.

Beyond the Bar: Discover how the courthouse connected Colonists to their community.

Trial of a Patriot
Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, 7 & 9 p.m.

What if America’s War for Independence had failed and the leaders of the American Revolution were charged with treason? Find out in this alternative-history trial.

Native American Culture Close Up
Sundays through Thursdays, 3 p.m.

American Indian interpreters share specific aspects of their traditional cultures.