ATLANTA — Before Erica Hubbard could portray an enslaved housekeeper, which she’ll do this weekend at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, she first had to learn some things about life in revolutionary times — including how slaves interacted with their masters circa 1776.
These lessons are so painful that some African American actors simply can’t bear to learn them. Even as Colonial Williamsburg and other historic sites have tried to do justice to the story of slavery and attract more minority visitors, they’ve sometimes had difficulty convincing black actors to take jobs interpreting enslaved figures.
It was easy to see why as Hubbard was being schooled on slavery in 18th century Virginia one recent Sunday by two men from Colonial Williamsburg’s theatrical division.
On a soundstage in suburban Atlanta, not far from where Hubbard films the Black Entertainment Television rom-com “Let’s Stay Together,” the 34-year-old actress listened intently as the men discussed the master-servant dynamic.
“When he comes in, she just bends at the knees,” Bill Weldon said.
“It’s a relationship with very clearly defined roles,” Stephen Seals explained.
Hubbard shifted in her folding chair.
Weldon, who is white, pretended to be Lydia Broadnax, a black woman whose little-documented life (they’re not even certain about her last name) has become an obsession for Colonial Williamsburg researchers. Seals, who is black, was temporarily portraying Lydia’s owner, George Wythe, a Founding Father and legal scholar who mentored Thomas Jefferson.
Seals looked at Weldon, who averted his eyes. “Even if they were in close proximity,” Weldon said, “Lydia would never really look at Wythe directly.”
Hubbard’s own eyes widened. “Wow, wow, wow,” said Hubbard, who appeared to be taken aback by slavery’s strictures.
Seals understood her discomfort. “There’s always a real strain to playing an enslaved character,” he said.
He would know, having begun working as a slave interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg nearly five years ago. Seals is now a supervisor in the actor-interpreter unit, which employs 44 people, including 11 blacks, to act out historical characters, in proper period costume, around the 301-acre property.
It’s a scholarship-based storytelling method known as living history.
Part of his job, Seals said, is to ensure that the actors remember that they are not who they interpret. “We’re taught to be detached from your character; doing these roles really tests that hypothesis,” he said. “It’s not for everyone.”
The costumes can be psychologically problematic. So, too, can guests, who often aren’t sure how to respond when confronted with a shameful chapter of American history.
Sympathetic visitors to Williamsburg have been known to bump or block white actor-interpreters who are haranguing or otherwise mistreating enslaved black characters. Occasionally, they’ve grabbed prop guns or started to shout about fighting back.
Racist and demeaning comments also aren’t uncommon. Willie Wright, a veteran actor-interpreter, said a child once asked him if he was a slave. When Wright said yes, the boy, who was white, demanded that Wright bring him a soda.
A woman once stopped Seals to ask him a question: “Why are black people still so angry?”
“We’ve coined a term,” said Katrinah Lewis, the actress who typically interprets Lydia Broadnax. “Post-traumautic slave syndrome.”
The result: Colonial Williamsburg has struggled to fill one slavery role, for a young, black male. The position, a full-time job that pays between $13 and $18 an hour, has been open for two years, said Weldon, the organization’s director of historic area programming. “Some people turned us down because they didn’t want to portray an enslaved character.” Other sites in Virginia and Maryland have hit similar roadblocks.
“You interview people, and they’ll say: ‘I just can’t do it. I can’t put on that costume,’” said Tricia Brooks, Colonial Williamsburg’s African American initiatives manager. “It comes with a lot of baggage. If you haven’t unpacked that baggage before you put the costume on, you’re going to have problems.”
But Williamsburg’s black actors believe telling the story is a responsibility. “Some people haven’t thought about what happened to our people,” Lewis said. “We’re making them think about what it really may have been like in the 18th century.”
Hubbard’s immersion into this world was fleeting: She performed as a slave just twice recently, through Colonial Williamsburg’s guest artist program, a recent initiative that uses ascendant Hollywood actors to help the site reach a younger, more diverse audience. “Grey’s Anatomy” actor Jesse Williams was among earlier guests starring in 2010 in a wrenching slavery piece.
“Liberty for Lydia” is more uplifting, “a story of hope,” said Weldon. But it conveys the great irony of the Revolution: That for all their trumpeting about all men being created equal, the Founding Fathers fought for the liberty of some, but not all.
Hubbard said she is reveling in the role. “Lydia is amazing, strong, smart and hopeful,” Hubbard said. “And she has so much dignity. She’s not just some ‘yes massa, I’za work for you-type character.’”
The actress said she had “no hesitation” taking the part. Never mind that Hubbard has ancestors who were enslaved or that some of her friends disapprove of the project.
“They don’t like it,” she said. “But it’s our history. It happened. It’s a time period that needs to be talked about. I see it differently. I embrace it.”
So, too, does Colonial Williamsburg, which wasn’t always the case.
By 1776, free and enslaved blacks made up more than half the population in the capital of England’s largest colony. But for years after the first public exhibition opened at Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s, the site focused on the white historical experience.
It wasn’t until 1979 — the year Hubbard was born — that Colonial Williamsburg began to get serious about African American programming, hiring a handful of black actors to portray enslaved characters. Then, in 1999, five years after a controversial slave-auction reenactement resulted in NAACP protests, Colonial Williamsburg launched a major interpretation initiative, called Enslaving Virginia, that put more — and more realistic — slavery stories on the streets. It has since continued to expand slave programming, scholarship and other initiatives.
“We’re in the business of public education, and we have to be as truthful as we can in presenting the past, warts and all,” said James Horn, Colonial Williamsburg’s vice president of research and historical interpretation. Portraying slavery “is an obligation.”
But the increased emphasis on black history hasn’t helped position Colonial Williamsburg as a major destination for African American tourists.
In the late 1990s, as the Enslaving Virginia program began, African Americans accounted for just 4 percent of the site’s approximately 1 million annual visitors. Over the past few years, as overall paid attendance has dropped — it was just over 650,000 last year — the percentage of African American visitors has fallen too. Between 2 and 3 percent over the past few years, according to Colonial Williamsburg officials.
The numbers are disheartening to Horn. “The American Revolution is not a story just for white people,” he said. “We have to encourage a more diverse audience. . . . You can come here 20 times in a year and you’re not going to see many people who are Hispanic or Asian American or African American.”
It was the property’s slowest time of the year, but horses pulling carriages still clip-clopped down the street, past the apothecary and the old mansions that look modest by modern standards. Men in tricorn hats walked the grounds while carpenters hammered away, roosters crowed and visitors began to tour the homes, learning, for instance, about Peyton Randolph, the first president of the Continental Congress — and the owner of 27 slaves.
“People say: ‘Oh, this is the place of the Founding Fathers! George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, they’re all here,’” said Brooks, the African American initiatives manager. “Well, yes, and guess what? They all owned slaves. Patrick Henry was a great man — and the largest private slaveholder in Williamsburg. “
At her Lydia reading, Erica Hubbard did not look the part. She wore designer jeans, designer heels, designer everything. She was also struggling, not to find the emotional core of the character — “She nailed that,” Seals said — but to pronounce George Wythe’s name properly. She kept calling him “White.” The men from Colonial Williamsburg kept correcting her: “With.”
Weldon had given her a copy of the Declaration of Independence, the version printed in the Virginia Gazette on July 26, 1776, then reproduced by hand by the Colonial Williamsburg printing shop.
He’d also given her plenty of advice about portraying Lydia. Distilled: Hit the history and find the humanity.
“It’s sometimes hard to remember that these enslaved people were people,” Weldon said. “They had hopes. They were proud.” Read up, he said, and you’ll learn “that enslaved people were the true founding mothers and fathers of this country. It was built on their backs.”
Hubbard was still sorting through how she felt about all of it. “Sometimes it’s disheartening to see where we came from,” she said. “But you’re happy that we made great strides to get away from that mentality.”
Indeed: She’d be flying first class to the capital of colonial Virginia, where she’d be put up in the swankiest hotel and be treated to a spa session — all so that she might surface that story.
“We’ve come a long way!” she said.”All that work our ancestors did is not in vain.”