Character Interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg has a lot to offer. It is the largest historical reenactment museum we have been to at 173 acres. They have a large area that is free to the public providing shopping, restaurants, carriage rides and character interactions if they are walking around town.  And that was the most amazing part of our week at CW, the characters. We tried see as many historical interpreters as possible.

We are really lucky. We bought seven consecutive days of Colonial Williamsburg. The kids could have complained about having to learn seven days of history. But they loved the character talks and plays.  Because we have read extensively about this time period they would understand the characters and who we were going to see. Consequently they would ask us in the morning, “Who are we going to see today?”

A collection of primary sources. This book is purchasable in the store and I have to do so some day. It is an amazing collection of the letters, writings, notes and documents during our early republic.
A collection of primary sources. This book is purchasable in the store and I will have to do so some day. It is an amazing collection of the letters, writings, notes and documents during our early republic.

Performances

Twice a day the character interpreters would have a talk or small play. These performances revealed insight into the lives of their character and period of history of Colonial Williamsburg. The people who act in these roles have done this for 10+ years, some 20+ years.  We asked the actor playing Martha Washington, played by Katharine Pittman, about being a character. She was very adamant that she was a teacher first. Explaining history from as many original sources and documents as CW has at their disposal (which is a lot). Then a performer second. She said, “We know a lot about the people of that time because they keep journals and wrote letters to each other. The character interpreters create their character’s personality. They have to guess at day to day life and remember that these were people with emotions and feelings as well as legends. That part wasn’t often documented.”

James Armistead and Marquis de Lafayette

 

Our first play was between James Armistead, played by Richard Josey, a slave, and the Marquis de Lafayette, played by Mark Schneider. It was an amazing story! And, disappointingly, one I had never heard. James was a slave who turned double agent for the Continental Army. He served under Lafayette and was sent by Lafayette to the British camps. As a runaway slave he spied on Englands movements. He successfully infiltrated General Cornwallis’s camp and Cornwallis took a liking to him. Cornwallis makes him a spy and sent him to spy on the Continental Army, as a runaway slave. James provided information to the Continental Army. And his delivery of misinformation to the General Cornwallis helped to gain Victory at Yorktown and turn the war in America’s favor.

Following the performance, on stage, the characters took questions for at least 30 mins. They answered everything from slavery to the Napoleonic Wars. After answering questions on stage they came down into the crowd and they took pictures for another 30 mins. Answering more questions and giving us other titles of books to reference if we wanted to read more. Both Nina and Aurora asked questions and were able to hold discussions with the characters.  This first encounter with the characters set the stage for a fantastic seven days.

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James answers Aurora's question. She asked about his farm in Virginia.
James answers Aurora’s question. She asked about his farm in Virginia.

 

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Marquis de Lafayette was our favorite character
Marquis de Lafayette was our favorite character. He had such a great personality and excitement about him.

 

Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry – Church vs State

Our next favorite historical discussion at Colonial Williamsburg was between Thomas Jefferson, played by Bill Barker, and Patrick Henry, played by Richard Schumann. It was the age old argument of “church vs state”. Although I do enjoy a good “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death” speech I did side with Thomas Jefferson this time.  The debate was fun to listen to, they were both very eloquent and delivered excellent points.

After the speech the two actors allowed the crowd to vote, but voting rules of the 18th century.  First you have to be a white male and a protestant. Second a voter had to own land and not have a mortgage on the property. Finally the land had to be 20 acres of improved land or 50 acres unimproved. As the two characters stated one regulation after another people would continue to sit down as they were disqualified.  Finally, one 80+ yrs. old man was left standing to vote.  He abstained, and said he had a headache.  It was quite funny.

 

These two actors also took question from the audience and stuck around for pictures.  In addition to this debate, we saw them multiple times in other buildings doing duties of their regular day to day activities in the 18th century. Most of the time they would keep their character. If it fit, they might jump out of character to answer a question but only if it was relevant to do so.

Patrick Henry debating church vs state, the original version.
Patrick Henry debating church vs state, the original version.

 

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Thomas Jefferson talking about his history of law at Colonial Williamsburg.
Thomas Jefferson talking about his history of law.

 

Patrick Henry gives us a geography lesson.
Patrick Henry gives us a geography lesson. He is currently pointing to northern Virginia. Seriously.

 

During our time we saw George and Martha Washington and Alexander Hamilton and George Mason. They were all fantastic.

Alexander Hamilton talks about life in the new nation after the war.
Alexander Hamilton talks about life in the new nation after the war.

 

Alexander Hamilton
Nina asked the actor playing Hamilton if he was really ever in Williamsburg and the actor said there was no historic documentation that he was. Meaning they threw the character in because of the popularity of the Hamilton play. But we had a good laugh about it.

 

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George and Martha Washington discuss their marriage.

 

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Summary


 

The actors really take a lot of pride in their work and research of their character.  Even, going so far as, George Washington, played by Ron Carnegie at Colonial Williamsburg, is in contact with the George Washington at Mount Vernon exchanging notes and critiquing performances. By the end of the seven days we had gained such knowledge. Good times.

George Washington’s Thanksgiving Speech

We leave you with this last speech, The First Thanksgiving Proclamation. We went to Colonial Williamsburg on Thanksgiving to listen to this speech.