Friday, July 03, 2009

The book I want to write starts like this:

"When people find out I work at Colonial Williamsburg, the first question they inevitably ask me is, do I get to work in costume? Usually they're disappointed when they find I'm actually behind the scenes, although they perk up again slightly when I tell them I get to make the costumes. I leave out the boring bits about hemming and buttons.

A couple times a week, however, I do get to work in costume. I throw on a lovely green linen gown and petticoat and go haunt the Randolph house, a storyteller for the ghost tours. One night I was standing in the doorway of the passage, enjoying a freshening breeze, when I noticed a guest (always 'guest,' never 'tourist') standing by the fence, looking at me with the "I have a question but I'm shy" face that any interpreter can spot a mile away. "Good evening!" I said, hands on hips, full of my eighteenth-century persona. "Hello," the woman said timidly, "Are you Eve?" "Oh, no," I cheerfully replied, happy to get some practise in as a first-person interpreter, "My name is Mrs. Peachy. This is my home. I live here with my husband and my young son." Then, my well of information about Mrs. Peach exhausted, I dropped the first-person act and came down the steps toward the woman. As I approached I saw that she was wearing a Teacher's Institute nametag, with her name and her hometown on it. Then, underneath that, another word: "Eve." And I instantly realised that this year the teacher's institute--an intensive weeklong historical immersion for teachers who are hoping to add a little pizazz to their social studies classes--must have assigned each person a historical figure to learn about. All this woman had was a name to go on. She had found herself the right house, all right, but had no clue who Eve was.

I walked up to the fence. "Eve was a slave," I explained. "She was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Randolph...after Peyton died, Eve and her son ran away and tried to join the British side, but they were captured and brought back. Eve was eventually sold." I am trying to be gentle, but I can see the teacher in front of me--a woman not much taller than me, middle-aged, wearing a white shirt under a fanny pack with sensible New Balance sneakers--is startled to find out that "her" person was actually an enslaved woman. "Was she--was she brought back by force?" she asks me.

The truth is, I don't know. In the ghost story I tell, Eve is "retaken." But I didn't write the script and I know that artistic licenses have been taken. "It's possible," I say slowly. "It's also possible that she returned under her own power, because her family was here, or she was unable to care for herself and her son, or the British kicked her out of their camp when they moved to Yorktown." Bits of historical fauna float to the surface of my brain, fascinating details about Americana I've tucked away. "Either way, Mrs. Randolph found it necessary to sell her because of her 'bad behavior' (this much I do know, I've read Betty Randolph's will, where she directs the executors to take the profits from Eve's sale and buy a slave for her niece, since the niece won't be inheriting Eve now.) so I guess we can assume that there was some bad blood there."

I am trying to be helpful, and I suggest to the woman that she really needs to come back during the day, when the Randolph House serves as an interpretive site for the African American programs. "The interpreters here would know a lot more than I would. I'm just the ghost." I can see though, that this friendly Kentuckian teacher is a little shook up. And who wouldn't be? You go on a treasure-hunt for the person on your nametag, and you end up confronting a dark, dirty secret of America's past.

This episode stuck with me because in some ways, I find myself performing the same task. My background is in theatre, in playwrighting, specifically, and for a long while now I have wanted to write a play about William Lee, George Washington's manservant. Slave, bought and owned by Washington until he died, but also one of the people closest to the Father of Our Country. Three steps behind Washington during his entire life and what do I know about him? Nothing. But for some reason--there's a play there, and I want to dig it out.

For all intents and purposes, I should be the last person who's interested in a play about Billy Lee. I am white. I am female. I am a Yankee--or at least, not from the South, which is how Southerners define "Yankee" although those of us from Wisconsin would probably check "other" on the great census sheet of union-vs.-confederacy. A rabid Anglophile, I can rattle off the British monarchy from Henry VIII all the way up to present day, but I peter out on American presidents somewhere around James Madison. To me, living in Virginia is almost like living in a foreign country with a history and a culture that should be learned and studied and appreciated.

This either makes me ideally suited for the task at hand, or in way, way over my head."

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